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In this academic office, it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world

March 2012

Tristan Aviles chooses his adjectives carefully. Each word is pondered; he self-edits in mid-sentence to be sure his meaning is clear. This attention to detail can only benefit him in his career as an academic secretary at Dawson College.

It’s no accident that Aviles works in a predominantly female profession. He didn’t fall into it—not exactly. He grew up in an academic family, helping his professor father compute student grades when Aviles was 15.

“My exposure and my likings led to some of my choices,” he says, explaining that he didn’t want to teach but always thought he’d work in an office or a library, surrounded by the things he loves: documentation and the book trade.

He graduated from Dawson himself and went on to Concordia University, but nearly 10 years to the day after his Dawson graduation, he found himself with a one-week assignment at the school.

Academic secretary Tristan Aviles has a special fondness for publications and the book trade. He’s witnessed a sea change in documentation since the 1980s. Photo: Hayley Juhl

The contract was extended, and extended again and again. He has worked here for 15 years, now in a permanent position supporting the English, French and professional theatre departments.

He likes working in a “relatively high-culture environment. The people here are dedicated, courteous ...” he pauses to find the right description. “Good-natured—that’s it.”

Computers have taken a bite out of the secretarial job market. While there were 180,010 positions in 2010, according to Human Resources Canada, that number is expected to continue a decline that began in the early 1990s.

Secretaries (not including those in the medical and legal fields) retire, on average, at 61. Because the median age of secretaries, 45, is relatively high, retirements are expected to result in about 73,000 jobs openings by 2020. Human Resources expects 21,000 job-seekers will be available for these positions.

Aviles witnessed the sea change in publications and documentation at the dawn of computerized course management systems in the late 1980s.

“Computers were still making their way into the office,” recalls Aviles, 47. “By the late ’80s, there was a name change in the training program: Cegep secretarial studies became office automation or office systems. I felt more comfortable with that and jobs were plentiful—almost every organization has an office.

“I had majored in French at Concordia, which was a plus. Written bilingualism is valued and coveted by employers.

“There’s always something we can improve on. Speed, production, human relations, accuracy”—a sigh that might also be a chuckle—“volume. You have to take the time to stop every few months to think and take stock of what skills you can hone for the future.

“There are those who have gone on to junior management or professional positions. You have to show that ambition.”

At one time he considered management, but not right now. Five years ago, his kidneys shut down, putting any plans to go to night school on the back burner.

Aviles was fortunate: He was able to get a kidney transplant, the organ donated by a perfect match. But a side-effect of the medication he must take is fatigue.

“Today I lead a more or less normal life. The only thing is that I have to lay low in the evenings. No night classes for me. But the door is always open.”

He doesn’t worry about raised eyebrows when people hear the word “secretary” in his job title.

“It depends on the age of the person. The older they are, the more puzzled they might be. The younger they are, the less they care.”

And anyway, being a male secretary isn’t as rare as you might think: “Another one of us was hired two weeks ago.”



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