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. . . while others flourish with help of computers

Karen McCormick has been answering phones at Federal Express for 10 years, scheduling package pickups, directing customers to drop-off spots and tracking shipments.

But she quit her full-time job at the company this month to start her own business, buoyed by the computer skills she gained at the largest overnight delivery company.

"This is one of the things on my resume," said Ms. McCormick, who just bought a personal computer and is customizing financial and marketing software for her new massage therapy business. "I think computer skills go right to the top. If I want to do anything else, I'm going to need to know about computers."

As computers become more and more integral to the nation's culture, not just its economy, Federal Express Corp. exemplifies a business that imparts those skills in a way likely to be copied by many other companies in the future.

"Federal Express is just one enormous electronic neural system with 100,000 people and a few thousand trucks and planes and facilities appended to it _ literally," said Frederick W. Smith, the company's founder and chief executive officer.

At Federal Express, couriers use hand-held scanners to record when they pick up and deliver packages. People at sorting hubs in Memphis, Newark, N.J., Indianapolis and Oakland, Calif., use scanners and wall-mounted PCs to process 2-million packages and documents nightly.

Phone operators and field office agents, tied to the company's mainframe, schedule pickups and deliveries and can tell customers the locations of their packages at any point during the shipping process.

Much of the company's training is done on computers, and well over 50,000 workers use electronic mail to communicate.

"There's no such thing at Federal Express as computer jobs and non-computer jobs," said Dennis Jones, senior vice president and chief technology officer.

Because it has steadily grown during its 20 years, Federal Express is an exception among big companies that typically have been able to cut jobs because of advanced technology. The company's only job cuts occurred in 1992, when it scaled back its unprofitable European operations.

The company could face pressure in the future, though, as electronic networks grow, potentially siphoning off some of its document-shipping business in the same way that fax machines have made inroads. One of the few failures in Federal Express history was an electronic mail service called ZapMail, which was introduced in 1985 and died the next year.

So far, however, Federal Express has made computers and communication systems fit its purposes rather than the other way around. That often has meant simplifying a machine or its software so someone with no formal technical education can run and, sometimes, fix it.

"You obviously can't make technology that's so simple that if you can't express yourself it will do what you want it to do," Smith said. "You've got to have that basic skill. On the other side of the coin, you've got to come down on the technology side."

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