But while administrative assistants, also called executive assistants, perform clerical tasks, their essential function is to serve as an executive's "right hand"--a trusty employee ready to fill in and add value wherever necessary. This function often means conducting research, preparing reports, writing speeches and answering correspondence.
Assistants who work in the medical or legal fields can expect to do work that is particular to their field. A medical assistant may help with a doctor's patients by taking their medical histories or making appointments for patients in addition to helping the doctor with materials for writing articles, attending conferences, and giving speeches. A legal assistant, likewise, assists the attorney with his or her professional needs, such as the many different types of legal papers they deal with--everything from complaints to motions, to subpoenas. And virtually all office assistants must be proficient in office software such as Microsoft Word and Excel, database programs like ACT, and financial software like Quicken. Ever-evolving software applications require that administrative assistants be efficient, skilled and open to change.
Administrative careers lend themselves to flexible hours and special arrangements, such as telecommuting and part-time work. Job-sharing arrangements, in which two people divide responsibility for a single job, have also become more popular.
Not all administrative assistants are lifers--many view their positions as prime opportunities to learn a business or to advance to positions with more responsibility in a company, especially in hard-to-crack industries like publishing and high tech.
A bachelor's degree isn't always required to become an administrative assistant; however, a love of education is vital. As office technology continues to evolve, retraining and continuing education remains an integral part of administrative jobs. Continuing changes in the office environment have increased the demand for administrative assistants who are adaptable and versatile. Testing and certification for entry-level office skills is available through the Office Proficiency Assessment and Certification program offered by Professional Secretaries International (PSI).
Qualified administrators who broaden their knowledge of the company's operations and enhance their skills may be promoted to executive assistant or office manager. Administrators with word processing experience can advance to positions as word processing trainers, supervisors or managers within their own firms. Their experience in administration can lead to jobs as software instructors or paralegals.
Breaking into the profession is not difficult, although starting out as an administrative assistant is unlikely, as many of the skills required are gained only through experience. As offices consolidate responsibilities, administrative assistants find themselves acquiring skills that might lead to a better job outside of their current company, where they may be overlooked for a promotion.
One administrative assistant describes the position as "the boss's confidant, office manager, supply and equipment purchasing manager, 'jack of all trades,' and master of office mysteries." There is real "diversity" to the position, adds another. While communication is "the most important tool in your portfolio" as an administrative assistant, you must at the same time maintain an "air of confidentiality" and, depending on for whom you work, you "may have to retain a great deal of information without speaking of it to anyone."
Many administrators enjoy the challenge of "being able to keep all the balls bouncing in the air and still get everything done at ground level." However, this position at the front lines of office activity means that assistants occasionally deal with the pressure of "being assigned something today and handling it yesterday." Also, our contacts say they are often expected to "know everything or at least know where to find the answers to everything." And the job can be thankless; assistants must be ready to correct problems without expecting "a pat on the back." Other downers include "problem people, cliques, gossips and backstabbers," although most assistants go into the job with the knowledge that office politics can be brutal.
Wide variety of career options; Promotion potential
Bosses can be difficult; Sometimes uninspiring work
Easily stressed; Sensitive
Average about 40 per week
Median salary for administrative and executive assistants: $37,240; Median salary for administrative services managers: $67,690; Top-level executive assistants can earn $100,000+
High school diploma; Typing; Proficiency with office software