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Administrative Support Assistants

Significant Points
  • This occupation ranks among those with the largest number of job openings.
  • Opportunities should be best for applicants with extensive knowledge of computer software applications.
  • Secretaries and administrative assistants are increasingly assuming responsibilities once reserved for managerial and professional staff.
Nature of the Work

As the reliance on technology continues to expand in offices, the role of the office professional has greatly evolved. Office automation and organizational restructuring have led secretaries and administrative assistants to increasingly assume responsibilities once reserved for managerial and professional staff. In spite of these changes, however, the core responsibilities for secretaries and administrative assistants have remained much the same: performing and coordinating an office's administrative activities and storing, retrieving, and integrating information for dissemination to staff and clients.

Secretaries and administrative assistants perform a variety of administrative and clerical duties necessary to run an organization efficiently. They serve as information and communication managers for an office; plan and schedule meetings and appointments; organize and maintain paper and electronic files; manage projects; conduct research; and disseminate information by using the telephone, mail services, Web sites, and e-mail. They may also handle travel and guest arrangements.

Secretaries and administrative assistants use a variety of office equipment, such as fax machines, photocopiers, scanners, and videoconferencing and telephone systems. In addition, secretaries and administrative assistants often use computers to do tasks previously handled by managers and professionals; they create spreadsheets, compose correspondence, manage databases, and create presentations, reports, and documents using desktop publishing software and digital graphics. They may also negotiate with vendors, maintain and examine leased equipment, purchase supplies, manage areas such as stockrooms or corporate libraries, and retrieve data from various sources. At the same time, managers and professionals have assumed many tasks traditionally assigned to secretaries and administrative assistants, such as keyboarding and answering the telephone. Because secretaries and administrative assistants do less dictation and word processing, they now have time to support more members of the executive staff. In a number of organizations, secretaries and administrative assistants work in teams to work flexibly and share their expertise.

Many secretaries and administrative assistants provide training and orientation for new staff, conduct research on the Internet, and operate and troubleshoot new office technologies.

Specific job duties vary with experience and titles. Executive secretaries and administrative assistants provide high-level administrative support for an office and for top executives of an organization. Generally, they perform fewer clerical tasks than do secretaries and more information management. In addition to arranging conference calls and supervising other clerical staff, they may handle more complex responsibilities such as reviewing incoming memos, submissions, and reports in order to determine their significance and to plan for their distribution. They also prepare agendas and make arrangements for meetings of committees and executive boards. They may also conduct research and prepare statistical reports.

Some secretaries and administrative assistants, such as legal and medical secretaries, perform highly specialized work requiring knowledge of technical terminology and procedures. For instance, legal secretaries prepare correspondence and legal papers such as summonses, complaints, motions, responses, and subpoenas under the supervision of an attorney or a paralegal. They may also review legal journals and assist with legal research—for example, by verifying quotes and citations in legal briefs. Additionally, legal secretaries often teach newly minted lawyers how to prepare documents for submission to the courts. Medical secretaries transcribe dictation, prepare correspondence, and assist physicians or medical scientists with reports, speeches, articles, and conference proceedings. They also record simple medical histories, arrange for patients to be hospitalized, and order supplies. Most medical secretaries need to be familiar with insurance rules, billing practices, and hospital or laboratory procedures. Other technical secretaries who assist engineers or scientists may prepare correspondence, maintain their organization's technical library, and gather and edit materials for scientific papers.

Secretaries employed in elementary schools and high schools perform important administrative functions for the school. They are responsible for handling most of the communications between parents, the community, and teachers and administrators who work at the school. As such, they are required to know details about registering students, immunizations, and bus schedules, for example. They schedule appointments, keep track of students' academic records, and make room assignments for classes. Those who work directly for principals screen inquiries from parents and handle those matters not needing a principal's attention. They may also set a principal's calendar to help set her or his priorities for the day.

Some secretaries and administrative assistants, also known as virtual assistants, are freelancers who work at a home office. They use the Internet, e-mail, fax, and the phone to communicate with clients. Other duties include medical or legal transcription, writing and editing reports and business correspondence, answering e-mail, data entry, setting appointments, making travel arrangements, bookkeeping, and desktop publishing.

Work environment. Secretaries and administrative assistants usually work in schools, hospitals, corporate settings, government agencies, or legal and medical offices. Virtual assistants work from a home office. Their jobs often involve sitting for long periods. If they spend a lot of time keyboarding, particularly at a computer monitor, they may encounter problems of eyestrain, stress, and repetitive motion ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The majority of secretaries and administrative assistants are full-time employees who work a standard 40-hour week. About 18 percent of secretaries work part time and many others work in temporary positions. A few are self-employed, freelance (such as virtual assistants), or participate in job-sharing arrangements, in which two people divide responsibility for a single job.

Office Aid, GS-0303-01

Works in an office which distributes informational materials. The employee places pamphlets and other publications in the appropriate size envelopes, affixes pre-printed address labels, and sets aside for mailing. The employee also checks the number of copies mailed to each address against a mailing list.

Communications Clerk, GS-0394-02

Works in a communications center assisting higher level employees by posting changes to routing indicators and addresses. Receives lists of routing indicator changes from a higher level employee, chooses the routing supplement to be updated, annotates whether the indicator is added, changed, or deleted, and notes the effective date. Checks for transpositions in routing indicator letters.

Office Clerk, GS-0303-03

Performs a variety of clerical work in an office providing services to the public:

  • Takes and delivers telephone messages for the staff and answers routine inquiries. Schedules appointments or uses judgment in referring calls to the appropriate specialist. Pages personnel when necessary and alerts personnel to unusual situations.
  • Updates manuals on policies, directives and memoranda. Records and files information on specific cases, current projects, and/or studies. Maintains the bulletin board, selecting and filing deleted material for future reference.
  • Monitors stock levels of a variety of office supplies. Orders common supplies as necessary and orders specific supplies requested by the staff.
  • Keeps time and attendance records and coordinates their submission to the payroll office.

The employee applies a thorough knowledge of the organization's functions and procedures in performing the work and applies experience and judgment in handling situations that arise.

Security Clerk, GS-0086-04

Performs a variety of recordkeeping, reporting, and informational duties in support of the organization's security program. Compiles, maintains, and updates data, lists and reports of computer passwords, security violations, and employees and visitors authorized access to the building and/or its computer system.

Applies knowledge of the organization's security procedures, processes, and rules governing building access, reports of physical security violations, personnel clearances and identification, and computer access authorizations.

Fire Program Clerk, GS-0303-04

Produces a variety of written documents utilizing varied and advanced word processing software functions, working from hand written draft, edited copy, or electronic files created by another staff member. Final copy may be in one of several formats, each requiring the use of advanced functions to perform extensive editing functions.

Operates a variety of office machines including calculators, copiers, telefax machine, computers, modems, and typewriters.

Assist with tracking and controlling the flow of correspondence. Follows up to ensure deadlines are met for reports and reply due memoranda.

Performs filing including the maintenance of files and retrieving documents from files. Maintains fire management correspondence files and records.

Maintains records on all fire management procurement actions ensuring requisitions are properly completed. Provides assistance with the maintenance of capitalized property inventory records, minor control property inventory, and general stock inventory supplies.

As required, retrieves and inputs information into appropriate database or files. This may include recording monthly motor vehicle mileage reports for all fire vehicles and equipment; completing fire reports; and/or maintaining records of all fire management.

Receives and processes all fire qualification records through the National Fire Management Computer System. Assist with issuance of red card certificates to qualifying employees as instructed and approved by the Fire Management Officer. As instructed, prepares and processes fire resource orders for routine and emergency incidents.

Prepares travel authorizations and vouchers for the staff. Makes travel arrangements for routine traveling and for emergency firefighter traveling to other states.

Keeps time and attendance reports for the staff. Provides assistance to employees with resolving payroll questions and concerns pertaining to leave, quarter deductions, tax withholding, etc.

Submits physical exams and employee medical history reports to the Department of Interior Medical Examiner for review. Prepares the required forms to implement the hiring and termination of Fire Management temporary employees.

When necessary, assist with the budget needs analysis by work unit and prepares the final budget on appropriate forms based on input from program manager. Checks expenditures and tracks presuppression and suppression budgets.

Maintains fire qualifications system records. Processes all fire qualification records through National Fire Management Computer System. Maintain fire qualification records, issues red card certificates to qualifying employees upon approval by the Fire Management Officer.

Observes fire weather indices via computerized weather station system and the AFFIRMS network. Assists fire staff with daily manning guide analyses required to initiate emergency standby pay and extended tours of duty.

Inspectional Aid, GS-0303-05

Provides specialized clerical assistance to several Customs Inspectors by controlling in-bound manifests for air and sea cargo, and inbound storage. Controls manifested cargo by posting a variety of entry permits and other clearance documents against corresponding bills of lading. Examines documents for completeness, discrepancies, sampling requirements, prohibited cargo, and other special requirements and identifies entries that may involve fraud, smuggling, etc., based on available intelligence data.

The incumbent authorizes lay order extensions, obtains general order control numbers, resolves manifest and entry discrepancies, and prepares official and office workload reports for the inspection facility. Maintains office files, inventories nonexpendable equipment, prepares supply requisitions, accepts cash, and prepares daily cash transmittals.

Applies a knowledge of pertinent sections of the Tariff Act, the Inspectors Manual, and other guides and a substantial knowledge of the functions of other divisions and branches within the Customs district to accomplish the procedural and processing functions necessary to import cargo. Applies a knowledge of data in the Treasury Enforcement Computer System (TECS) and reasoned judgment to discern entries requiring further analysis by inspectors because of possible fraud, controlled substances, and prohibited cargo.

Grants Clerk, GS-0303-05

SUPPORTS PROGRAM, REVIEW, AND GRANTS FUNCTIONS

Receives, reviews for completeness, routes, and stores grant applications and research and development contract proposals. Maintains paper and electronic files. Prints labels and summary statements. Extracts data from applications. Maintains paper or electronic calendar, listservs, directories of e-mail and mailing addresses. Duplicates, collates, and scans documents. Prepares and transmits Council-related documents and correspondence. Types correspondence, such as forms, reports, spreadsheets, and scientific initiatives. Receives and screens phone calls and emails, and routes to appropriate IC staff if necessary. Responds to inquiries. Receives and escorts visitors to proper location.

PROVIDES STANDARD LOGISTICAL SUPPORT FOR MEETINGS

Provides standard logistical support and coordination for scientific conferences, workshops, and site visits, as well as board, Council, and other advisory group meetings. Arranges for meeting facilities and equipment. Arranges Hotel accommodations. Provides basic information to speakers/participants including that related to travel, lodging reimbursement, per diem payment, and honoraria. Prepares and distributes meeting materials and assists with other meeting activities on site, as needed. Assembles and maintains meeting files. Reviews and distributes incoming mail; and sends or delivers outgoing mail and faxes. Orders supplies and arranges for equipment repairs. Arranges standard and non-standard staff and consultant travel and training. Arranges for document disposition and disposal.

MANAGES DATA

Management of standard data in the [name of system] system including data entry, maintenance and retrieval in the area of Grants Management, Program, and Review including consultant information and rosters, scores, codes, and summary statements. Updates other NIH and local databases. Tracks and reports on competing and non-competing applications and awards. Enters and verifies required basic information on human subjects into [name of system] Tracking databases. Provides data to Supervisor and Manager that will allow performance evaluation.

Reports and Financial Assistant, GS-0303-06

The employee runs a statistical reporting and records systems for a major division of a regional office. The division is a relatively stable organization that does not have widely diverse functions. The employee works by: analyzing feeder reports from various branches and units; preparing divisionwide reports: designing detailed charts and graphs; and conducting special management studies requiring written presentations of findings, recommendations, forecasts, and justifications.

The employee also reviews work measurement functions for the division to ensure that basic reporting requirements and procedures are being followed and that reports provide clear and concise information; analyzes data to determine and evaluate results, trends, and developments; and writes instructions as needed to implement changes in reporting procedures.

The employee consolidates annual funding estimates from subordinate offices into a complete budget request for the division; organizes estimates by appropriation, object class, and line item following current budget instructions; and prepares required supporting documentation for expenditures such as employee travel, training, and office equipment and supplies. Funding requirements for the division's are relatively stable from year to year.

Work requires an in-depth practical knowledge of the division's activities, operations, and established guidelines relating to work measurement functions, statistical reporting and records systems, and the budget process. The work also requires skill to compile and summarize information and data, identify inaccuracies or anomalies in the information, and make written recommendations to resolve discrepancies based on interpretation of applicable regulations and procedures. The employee must extract and analyze a considerable volume of information to arrive at an end product.

Administrative Support Assistant, GS-0303-7

Advises the manager of a single-function field office on the practical and technical aspects of office administration, to include budgeting, purchasing, supply management, personnel administration, data processing, and files management, and performs staff support work in each of these areas. The employee collects data for the office operating budget, reviews submissions of office staff assistants for proper format and compliance with agency budget requirements, and consolidates material into art annual office budget; sets up controls to monitor expenses during the year; and recommends budget adjustments including restructuring budget allocations or work plans to deal with changing situations such as varying costs for equipment parts, or services, and changes in the availability of funds.

The employee also updates the office's supply sources catalogues; purchases supplies, equipment, and services through open market purchase by blanket agreement, cash or field purchase order, or similar methods; processes and tracks purchase documents; completes requests for personnel actions and writes position descriptions; and distributes forms and instructions for annual performance ratings and ensures timely, proper completion. Conducts local recruitment and holds new employee orientation sessions. Maintains and revises the office filing system. Collects program information from technical specialists, enters it into electronic or manual information systems, and searches for it as requested; schedules use and maintenance of computer equipment; enters and retrieves information from a variety of systems; and helps field office employees to use the various computer systems.

The employee must maintain, and transfer funds between several unrelated appropriated fund accounts and several revolving fund accounts. The accounts are subject to different regulations and procedures. The work also involves initiating personnel actions as needed by the office. The employee track virtually all financial, personnel, supply, and other administrative transactions as the documentation flows through the office in both electronic form and on paper.

Work requires general knowledge of the mission and functions of the field office. The employee must understand how the office's various administrative services relate to one another and how they relate to the office's mission. The work also requires broad understanding and detailed procedural knowledge of budget, purchasing, personnel, and information processing functions of the field office.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Word processing, writing, and communication skills are essential for all secretaries and administrative assistants. Employers increasingly require extensive knowledge of computer software applications, such as desktop publishing, project management, spreadsheets, and database management.

Education and training. High school graduates who have basic office skills may qualify for entry-level secretarial positions. They can acquire these skills in various ways. Training ranges from high school vocational education programs that teach office skills and typing to 1-year and 2-year programs in office administration offered by business and vocational-technical schools, and community colleges. Many temporary placement agencies also provide formal training in computer and office skills. Most medical and legal secretaries must go through specialized training programs that teach them the language of the industry. Virtual assistant training programs are available at many community colleges in transcription, bookkeeping, website design, project management, and computer technology. There are also online training and coaching programs.

Employers of executive secretaries increasingly are seeking candidates with a college degree, as these secretaries work closely with top executives. A degree related to the business or industry in which a person is seeking employment may provide the jobseeker with an advantage in the application process.

Most secretaries and administrative assistants, once hired, tend to acquire more advanced skills through on-the-job instruction by other employees or by equipment and software vendors. Others may attend classes or participate in online education to learn how to operate new office technologies, such as information storage systems, scanners, or new updated software packages. As office automation continues to evolve, retraining and continuing education will remain integral parts of secretarial jobs.

Other qualifications. Secretaries and administrative assistants should be proficient in typing and good at spelling, punctuation, grammar, and oral communication. Employers also look for good customer service and interpersonal skills because secretaries and administrative assistants must be tactful in their dealings with people. Discretion, good judgment, organizational or management ability, initiative, and the ability to work independently are especially important for higher-level administrative positions. Changes in the office environment have increased the demand for secretaries and administrative assistants who are adaptable and versatile.

Certification and advancement. Testing and certification for proficiency in office skills are available through organizations such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals; National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS), Inc.; Legal Secretaries International, Inc; and International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA). As secretaries and administrative assistants gain experience, they can earn several different designations. Prominent designations include the Certified Professional Secretary (CPS) and the Certified Administrative Professional (CAP), which can be earned by meeting certain experience or educational requirements and passing an examination. Similarly, those with 1 year of experience in the legal field, or who have concluded an approved training course and who want to be certified as a legal support professional, can acquire the Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS) designation through a testing process administered by NALS. NALS offers two additional designations: Professional Legal Secretary (PLS), considered an advanced certification for legal support professionals, and a designation for proficiency as a paralegal. Legal Secretaries International confers the Certified Legal Secretary Specialist (CLSS) designation in areas such as intellectual property, criminal law, civil litigation, probate, and business law to those who have 5 years of legal experience and pass an examination. In some instances, certain requirements may be waived. There is currently no set standard of certification for virtual assistants. A number of certifications exist which involve passing a written test covering areas of core competencies and business ethics. The IVAA has three certifications available: Certified Virtual Assistant, Ethics Checked Virtual Assistant; and the Real Estate Virtual Assistant.

Secretaries and administrative assistants generally advance by being promoted to other administrative positions with more responsibilities. Qualified administrative assistants who broaden their knowledge of a company's operations and enhance their skills may be promoted to senior or executive secretary or administrative assistant, clerical supervisor, or office manager. Secretaries with word processing or data entry experience can advance to jobs as word processing or data entry trainers, supervisors, or managers within their own firms or in a secretarial, word processing, or data entry service bureau. Secretarial and administrative support experience also can lead to jobs such as instructor or sales representative with manufacturers of software or computer equipment. With additional training, many legal secretaries become paralegals.

Employment

Secretaries and administrative assistants held about 4.3 million jobs in 2008, ranking it among the largest occupations in the U.S. economy. The following tabulation shows the distribution of employment by secretarial specialty:

Secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive 2,020,000
Executive secretaries and administrative assistants 1,594,400
Medical secretaries 471,100
Legal secretaries 262,600

Secretaries and administrative assistants are employed in organizations of every type. Around 90 percent are employed in service-providing industries, ranging from education and healthcare to government and retail trade. Most of the rest work for firms engaged in manufacturing or construction.

Job Outlook

Employment is projected to grow about as fast as the average. Secretaries and administrative assistants will have among the largest number of job openings due to growth and the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave this occupation. Opportunities should be best for applicants with extensive knowledge of computer software applications.

Employment change. Employment of secretaries and administrative assistants is expected to increase by 11 percent, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations, between 2008 and 2018. Projected employment varies by occupational specialty. Above average employment growth in the healthcare and social assistance industry should lead to much faster than the average growth for medical secretaries, while moderate growth in legal services is projected to lead to faster than average growth in employment of legal secretaries. Employment of executive secretaries and administrative assistants is projected to grow as fast as the average for all occupations. Growing industries—such as construction; educational services; healthcare and social assistance; and professional, scientific, and technical services—will continue to generate the most new jobs. Slower than average growth is expected for secretaries, except legal, medical, or executive, who account for about 46 percent of all secretaries and administrative assistants.

Increasing office automation and organizational restructuring will continue to make secretaries and administrative assistants more productive in coming years. Computers, e-mail, scanners, and voice message systems will allow secretaries and administrative assistants to accomplish more in the same amount of time. The use of automated equipment is also changing the distribution of work in many offices. In some cases, traditional secretarial duties as typing, filing, photocopying, and bookkeeping are being done by clerks in other departments or by the professionals themselves. For example, professionals and managers increasingly do their own word processing and data entry, and handle much of their own correspondence. In some law and medical offices, paralegals and medical assistants are assuming some tasks formerly done by secretaries. Also, many small and medium-sized organizations are outsourcing key administrative functions, such as data entry, bookkeeping, and Internet research, to virtual assistants.

Developments in office technology are certain to continue. However, many secretarial and administrative duties are of a personal, interactive nature and, therefore, are not easily automated. Responsibilities such as planning conferences, working with clients, and instructing staff require tact and communication skills. Because technology cannot substitute for these personal skills, secretaries and administrative assistants will continue to play a key role in most organizations.

As paralegals and medical assistants assume more of the duties traditionally assigned to secretaries, offices will continue to replace the traditional arrangement of one secretary per manager with secretaries and administrative assistants who support the work of systems, departments, or units. This approach means that secretaries and administrative assistants will assume added responsibilities and will be seen as valuable members of a team.

Job prospects. In addition to jobs created from growth, numerous job opportunities will arise from the need to replace secretaries and administrative assistants who transfer to other occupations, including exceptionally skilled executive secretaries and administrative assistants who often move into professional occupations. Job opportunities should be best for applicants with extensive knowledge of computer software applications, with experience as a secretary or administrative assistant, or with advanced communication and computer skills. Applicants with a bachelor's degree will be in great demand to act more as managerial assistants and to perform more complex tasks.

Earnings

Median annual wages of secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive, were $29,050 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,160 and $36,020. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,440, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $43,240. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive in May 2008 were:

Local government $32,610
Colleges, universities, and professional schools 31,530
General medical and surgical hospitals 30,960
Elementary and secondary schools 29,850
Employment services 28,340

Median annual wages of executive secretaries and administrative assistants were $40,030 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $32,410 and $50,280. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $62,070. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of executive secretaries and administrative assistants in May 2008 were:

Management of companies and enterprises $45,190
Local government 41,880
Colleges, universities, and professional schools 39,220
State government 35,540
Employment services 33,820

Median annual wages of legal secretaries were $39,860 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $30,870 and $50,930. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,580, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $62,290. Medical secretaries earned median annual wages of $29,680 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,530 and $36,090. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $42,660.

Virtual assistants set their own rate structure and billing terms based on the type of work, skill level, cost of living in their area, experience, and personal financial needs. Those who bill using an hourly rate can range anywhere from $25 to $100 per hour. Some also bill on a per page or project rate.

Related Occupations

Workers in a number of other occupations also type, record information, and process paperwork. Among them are:

A growing number of secretaries and administrative assistants share in managerial and human resource responsibilities. Occupations requiring these skills include:

Sources of Additional Information

State employment offices provide information about job openings for secretaries and administrative assistants.

For information on the latest trends in the profession, career development advice, and the CPS or CAP designations, contact:

  • International Association of Administrative Professionals, P.O. Box 20404, Kansas City, MO 64195-0404. Internet: http://www.iaap-hq.org
  • Association of Executive and Administrative Professionals, 900 South Washington St., Suite G-13, Falls Church, VA 22046. Internet: http://www.theaeap.com

Information on the CLSS designation can be obtained from:

Information on the ALS, PLS, and paralegal certifications is available from:

  • National Association of Legal Secretaries, Inc., 8159 East 41st. St., Tulsa, OK 74145. Internet: http://www.nals.org

Information on virtual assistant certification can be obtained from:

  • International Virtual Assistants Association, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 309, Reno, NV 89503. Internet: http://www.ivaa.org

Information on obtaining Administrative Support Assistance positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Sources:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
  • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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