Is the End Near for Gibbs Secretarial Schools?

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The famed chain of secretarial schools founded a century ago by Katharine Gibbs appears to be headed out of business. A for-profit corporation that bought the nine Gibbs schools in the 1990s is preparing to shut seven campuses.


(Soundbite of song, "A Secretary is Not a Toy")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) A secretary is not a toy, no, my boy, not a toy.

SIMON: For nearly a century Katharine Gibbs Schools have produced clerical workers. Secretaries, if you please, were poised and accomplished professionals and occasionally, forgive the expression, pert, like the fragile and touching Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine opposite Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apartment")

Ms. SHIRLEY MACLAINE (Actress): (as Fran Kubelik) I came to New York and moved in with my sister and her husband. He drives a cab. They sent me to secretarial school and then I applied for a job at Consolidated, but I flunked the typing test.

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (as C.C. Baxter) Too slow?

Ms. MACLAINE: (as Fran Kubelick) No. I can type up a storm. I just can't spell. Well, they gave me a pair of white gloves and stuck me in an elevator and that's how I met Jeff. Oh God, I'm so fouled up. What am I going to do now?

SIMON: Good question. The days of white gloved elevator operators, dulcet voices answering phones and executives bidding, take a litter, are drawing to a close. Outdated by phone mail, e-mail, voice recognition software and spell check, which might explain why this week the Career Education Corporation, which owns the nine Katharine Gibbs Schools sprinkled through the east, announced it will close seven of its campuses. They say that the schools have become increasingly unprofitable. Unless they find a buyer the two remaining campuses will close by the end of next year.

Katharine Gibbs Schools tried to change along with the workplace. They added programs in business, health care administration and graphic design. And this year half the students at the Boston campus are men. They've come a long way since the days of the long-suffering Ms. Marmelstein of Broadway's "I Can Get it For You Wholesale."

(Soundbite of song, "Miss Marmelstein")

Ms. BARBARA STREISAND (Singer): (Singing) (Singing) I'm a very willing secretary, enjoy my work as my employer will corroborate, except for one disappointment, one fly in the ointment. It's great, I mean, simply great. But the aggravation of my situation, I might as well get it off my chest, is a drab appellation - pardon the big words I apply but I was an English major at CCNY…

SIMON: The Gibbs Schools didn't teach just office skills. They were considered a kind of finishing school for workplace professionalism, encouraging students to be well dressed and well mannered, which might sound just a bit antique in these times when casual Fridays seem to creep earlier into the week and people in the cubicles can be overheard swearing like sailors at somebody's voicemail.

Executives like to think they ran things, but the smartest of them always knew that the hand that took shorthand ruled the workplace.

(Soundbite of song, "A Secretary is Not a Toy")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) A secretary is not a toy, and when you put her to use. Observe when you put her to use, that you don't find the name Lionel on her caboose.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) A secretary is not a thing, wound by key, pulled by string. Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in. If that's what you plan to enjoy. No.

MONTAGNE: Take a letter, sweetheart. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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