Secretaries and administrative assistants perform routine clerical and administrative duties. They organize files, draft messages, schedule appointments, and support other staff.

Duties

Secretaries and administrative assistants typically do the following:

  • Answer telephones and take messages or transfer calls
  • Schedule appointments and update event calendars
  • Arrange staff meetings
  • Handle incoming and outgoing mail and faxes
  • Draft routine memos, billing, or other reports
  • Edit company correspondence and ensure document accuracy
  • Maintain databases and filing systems, whether electronic or paper
  • Perform basic bookkeeping

Secretaries and administrative assistants perform a variety of clerical and administrative duties that are necessary to run an organization efficiently. They use computer software to create spreadsheets, manage databases, and prepare presentations, reports, and documents. They also may negotiate with vendors, buy supplies, and manage stockrooms or corporate libraries. Secretaries and administrative assistants also operate videoconferencing, fax, and other office equipment. Specific job duties vary by experience, job title, and specialty.

The following are examples of types of secretaries and administrative assistants:

Executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants provide high-level administrative support for an office and for top executives of an organization. They often handle more complex responsibilities, such as reviewing incoming documents, conducting research, and preparing reports. Some also supervise clerical staff.

Legal secretaries perform work requiring knowledge of legal terminology and procedures. They prepare messages and legal papers, such as summonses, complaints, motions, and subpoenas under the supervision of an attorney or a paralegal. They also review legal journals and help with legal research—for example, by verifying quotes and citations in legal briefs.

Medical secretaries transcribe dictation and prepare reports or articles for physicians or medical scientists. They also take simple medical histories of patients, arrange for patients to be hospitalized, or process insurance payments. Medical secretaries need to be familiar with medical terminology, medical records, and hospital or laboratory procedures.

Secretaries and administrative assistants, except legal, medical, and executive is the largest subcategory of secretaries and administrative assistants. They handle an office’s administrative activities in almost every sector of the economy, including schools, government, and private corporations. For example, secretaries in schools are often responsible for handling most of the communications among parents, students, the community, teachers, and school administrators. They schedule appointments, receive visitors, and keep track of students’ records.

Virtual assistants work from a home office, providing support to one or more clients on a contract basis. They use the Internet, email, and fax machines to communicate with clients. Although their assignments often vary from short term to long term, their typical duties are similar to those of other secretaries and administrative assistants. Working from a remote location allows virtual assistants to support multiple clients in different industries.

Work Environment

Secretaries and administrative assistants held about 3.9 million jobs in 2012 and worked in nearly every industry.

The industries that employed the most secretaries and administrative assistants in 2012 were as follows: 

Health care and social assistance 21%
Educational services; state, local, and private 14
Professional, scientific, and technical services 14
Government 8

Most secretaries and administrative assistants work in office settings. Virtual assistants typically work from a home office.                     

Work Schedules

Most secretaries and administrative assistants work full time. Virtual assistants may have more flexible schedules because they work from home.

Education and Training

High school graduates who have basic office and computer skills usually qualify for entry-level positions. Although most secretaries learn their job in several weeks, many legal and medical secretaries require several months of training to learn industry-specific terminology. Executive secretaries usually need several years of related work experience.

Education

High school graduates can obtain basic office, computer, and English grammar skills at technical schools or community colleges. Some temporary placement agencies also provide formal training in computer and office skills.

Some medical and legal secretaries learn industry-specific terminology and practices by attending courses offered at community colleges or technical schools. For executive secretary positions, employers increasingly prefer to hire those who have taken some college courses or have a bachelor’s degree.

Training

Secretaries and administrative assistants typically learn their skills through short-term on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. During this time they learn about office procedures, computer programs, and how to prepare office documents. However, employers of more specialized positions, including medical and legal secretaries, often have training that may last several months. Training typically covers industry-specific terminology and practices.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Executive secretaries can gain experience by working in administrative positions that have less complicated responsibilities. Many secretaries and administrative assistants advance to higher-level administrative positions.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Although not required, certification can demonstrate competency to employers.

The International Association of Administrative Professionals offers the Certified Administrative Professional (CAP) certification. Candidates must have a minimum of 2 to 4 years of administrative work experience, depending on their level of education, and pass an examination.

Legal secretaries have several certification options. For example, those with 1 year of general office experience, or who have completed an approved training course, can acquire the Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) designation through a testing process administered by NALS (previously known as National Association of Legal Secretaries). NALS offers two additional designations: the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS), considered to be an advanced certification for legal support professionals, and the Professional Paralegal (PP), a designation to show proficiency as a paralegal.

The Certified Legal Secretary Specialist (CLSS) designation is conferred by Legal Secretaries International in areas such as intellectual property, criminal law, civil litigation, probate, and business law. Candidates must have 5 years of legal experience and pass an examination to become certified. In some instances, certain requirements may be waived.

Advancement

Secretaries and administrative assistants generally advance to other administrative positions with more responsibilities, such as office supervisor, office manager, or executive secretary.

With additional training, many legal secretaries become paralegals or legal assistants.

Important Qualities

Integrity. Secretaries may have access to sensitive or private information that they must keep confidential. For example, medical secretaries collect patient data that are required, by law, to be kept confidential. They should be trusted to handle this information in order to protect patient privacy.

Interpersonal skills. Secretaries and administrative assistants often interact with clients, customers, or staff. They should communicate effectively and be courteous when interacting with others to create a positive work environment and client experience.

Organizational skills. Secretaries and administrative assistants keep files, folders, and schedules in proper order so an office can run efficiently.

Writing skills. Secretaries and administrative assistants often write memos and emails when communicating with managers, employees, and customers. Therefore, they must have good grammar, ensure accuracy, and maintain a professional tone.

Pay

The median annual wage for secretaries and administrative assistants was $35,330 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,910, and the top 10 percent earned more than $57,750. 

Median annual wages for secretaries and administrative assistants in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $47,500 for executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants
  • $42,170 for legal secretaries
  • $31,350 for medical secretaries
  • $32,410 for secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive

Although secretaries and administrative assistants are employed in nearly every industry, the majority work in schools, hospitals, governments, and legal and medical offices.

Most work full time in office settings. Virtual assistants may have more flexible schedules because they work from home.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of secretaries and administrative assistants is projected to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth, however, will vary by occupational specialty.

Employment of executive secretaries and administrative assistants is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022. This is largely because companies are replacing executive secretaries with lower-cost administrative assistants. Many administrative assistants can also support more than one manager in an organization.

In addition, many managers now perform work that was previously done by their executive secretaries. For example, they often type their own correspondence or schedule their own travel and meetings.

Employment of medical secretaries is projected to grow 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Federal health legislation will expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance, increasing patient access to medical care. In addition, the aging population will have increased demand for medical services. As a result, medical secretaries will be needed to handle administrative tasks related to billing and insurance processing.

Employment of legal secretaries is projected to decline 3 percent from 2012 to 2022. In order to cut costs, a growing number of legal firms are having paralegals and legal assistants perform work normally done by legal secretaries.

Employment of secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive, is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Many secretarial and administrative duties are of a personal, interactive nature. Because technology cannot substitute for interpersonal skills, secretaries and administrative assistants will continue to play a role in most organizations.

Job Prospects

Many job openings are expected to come from the need to replace secretaries and administrative assistants who leave the occupation.

Those with a combination of related work experience and computer skills should have the best job prospects.

For More Information

For more information on careers in secretarial and administrative work, visit

Association of Executive and Administrative Professionals

International Association of Administrative Professionals

For more information on legal secretaries and administrative assistants, visit

Legal Secretaries International Inc

NALS

For more information on virtual assistants, visit

International Virtual Assistants Association

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.

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