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Mail and File Clerks

Significant Points

This series covers positions involving the administration, supervision or performance of clerical work related to the processing of incoming or outgoing mail and/or the systematic arrangement of records for storage or reference purposes the scheduled disposition of records, and the performance of related work when such duties require the application of established mail or file methods and procedures, knowledge of prescribed systems for governing the flow and control of communications, and/or the filing or storage and retrieval of records, and knowledges of the organization and functions of the operating unit or units serviced.

Nature of the Work

Mail Work

Mail work involves the clerical processing operations related to the prompt and systematic flow of material between the originator and the ultimate receiver. Communications are received from or detached to other Government agencies, private concerns, organizations or individuals via the U.S. Postal Service, private postal services, or by telegraph, radiogram or other wire service, or by messenger or carrier service.

Processing operations normally involve aspects of the following:

    1. Processing incoming materials: This involves:

    • Receiving and sorting communications into such categories as mail to be opened, mail to be routed unopened, mail to be recorded or given special handling (e.g., security classified communications, policy mail, mail to be time-stamped, registered mail, mail containing valuables, priority mail, etc.);
    • Routing mail to organizational segments or individuals;
    • Maintaining control systems for the accountability of special communications;
    • Directing the distribution of materials; and
    • Maintaining such supportive systems as directories, mail count logs, distribution lists, etc.

    2. Routing materials is central to the mail distribution function and is one of the most important processes in mail work. Routing is the determination of the organizational segment or segments to that incoming, and copies of incoming and outgoing communications must be sent for action or information. This process normally requires reading the communication to determine its subject-matter.

    It ranges in difficulty from routing clearly discernible material to a few distribution points (e.g., 10-25) to routing varying materials of difficult content to a large number (e.g., 150 or more) of organizational units, many of which have closely related functions. In assessing the relative difficulty of routing in any situation, three inter-related elements should be considered:

    • The diversity and complexity of the material normally processed (for example, highly technical materials containing specialized, scientific, or technical terminology are typically more difficult to review and assign to the proper unit than are items which are clearly identifiable in terms of name , room numbers, subject headings, or file or reference citations);
    • The clarity of functions in the serviced units. For example, Mail Clerks may have problems in distinguishing among possible mail routings because the individual functions of such organizational unit to which mail is routed are narrow in scope (i.e., very similar in nature) within distinct types (e.g., several discrete types of loans are monitored, at under the relatively narrow heading of “Housing”), or because functions are otherwise similar and closely related; and
    • The number of distribution points involved. The number of distribution points is illustrative and not restrictive, because the number does not, in and of itself, affect grade level, but must be considered in relation to other factors involved in routing.

    3. Processing outgoing materials: This normally involves:

    • Segregation of file copies, information copies, and outgoing material;
    • Verification of enclosures or attachments;
    • Preparation of control records for accountability of certain security classified documents or registered mail;
    • Preparation for dispatching;
    • Determination, in some instances, of the means of transmission for documents; and
    • Coordination of Dispatch with surface, air telegraphic, etc., time schedules.

Sometimes outgoing communications are also reviewed for such items as adherence to postal and related administrative regulations pertaining to format, addressing methods, and other mechanical features.

Preparation of outgoing materials for dispatch entails a number of tasks such as date stamping, verifying signatures, facing materials, running mail through sealing, metering, or canceling machines, bundling and bagging mail according to U.S. Postal Service regulations, wrapping bulk mail, and preparing labels and envelopes. After outgoing communications are checked, dated, and separated, they are sorted for local and out-of-city delivery. In addition to this initial sorting, it is necessary to segregate material which requires special handling, such as air mail, special delivery, registered, and foreign mail (except diplomatic pouch mail).

Normally various procedures are prescribed for the control of special communications both incoming and outgoing. These communications include registered, certified, security classified, priority mail, reply mail or other types that agency policy may specify. Control procedures vary from entries in simple logs to the use of complex control forms including use of U.S. Postal Service and other serial numbers. In addition, control procedures frequently involve:

  • Preparing a routine or control form with appropriate routing code for forwarding purposes;
  • Determining the number of copies to be duplicated to meet routing requirements as indicated by guides to the organization, operations, and functions of the organization;
  • Recording time limits (establishing suspense dates), according to organizational policies, for actions to be completed;
  • Maintaining follow-up systems on incoming communications to insure prompt action;
  • Keeping informed a- to the location of received and controlled communications;
  • Obtaining receipt signatures for registered, security classified, and other specified communications;
  • Fixing responsibility for violation of administrative, security, postal, and other regulations.

Some Mail Clerk positions may require the operation of light vehicles, motorized mail carts, or other self-propelled vehicles in the delivery and pick up of mail.

File Work

File work includes the processing operations that provide for the establishment, maintenance, control, protection, and disposition of records, for efficient reference service, and for retrieval of information and materials.

While agencies and departments may be specialized systems, most filing classification systems basically are divided into four types:

  • Subject: materials are filed alphabetically by major division and specific subject headings.
  • Alphabetical: materials are filed by key word in alphabetical order.
  • Decimal: materials are assigned numbers in accordance with a prescribed classification system. The system provides for filing and retrieval according to major numerical families and subfamilies (e.g., 113.211 Energy, Petroleum, extraction techniques, location, facilities, etc.).
  • Alphanumerical: serves essentially the same purpose as the decimal system, but often contains more subdivisions and is thus more difficult to learn. Cross-indexing may exist in any one or a combination of the above systems.

Subject and alphabetical classification systems are normally considered simple file systems, but if categories are extensively subdivided and cross-indexed, they can be complex. Decimal and alphanumerical classification systems that involve a large volume of material are considered moderately complex and require a higher level of skill on the part of the employees to index, file, and locate materials.

Typically, file work is performed in accordance with one or more of these classification systems according to a plan that also provides for control over furnishing to users records or information contained in the records, safeguarding records from hazards or access by unauthorized persons, and related matters.

Filing work normally includes:

  • Determining the proper classification of materials to be filed in accordance with a prescribed classification system;
  • Sorting and arranging records in cabinets or other containers, and within folders, in accordance with file codes or symbols;
  • Locating and withdrawing material or information from records to meet the needs of users;
  • Cross-referencing file material;
  • Consolidating new material with previously filed material (whether referred to specifically or by implication) by searching, or requesting a search of, the files for related material;
  • Removing records for disposition according to established schedules and applicable rules and regulations;
  • Assembling records to insure that material on specific transactions or subjects is kept together;
  • Expanding or subdividing overcrowded files; and
  • Such related duties as maintaining cross-reference or other finding aids, labeling folder or file drawers, preparing file guides and similar materials, separating and eliminating duplicate copies, and using various sorting or other mechanical devices provided to facilitate processing where large volumes of material are involved.

Classifying records is one of the most important operations in file work. This process requires analysis of the subject-matter contained in documents and consistent application of the classification system in determining the primary subject under which the documents are to be filed and any subordinate subject breakdowns that are necessary for cross-reference purposes.

The subject-matter analysis normally requires consideration of such matters as:

  • The purpose or general significance of the record;
  • The most important, definite, and concrete subject mentioned;
  • The most appropriate subtopics for cross-references;
  • The manner in which similar documents are requested by users; and
  • The file codes or symbols under which previous records of a similar nature are filed.

Reference service is the means by which records, information from records, or copies or reproductions of records are made available to users requesting such service in person, by telephone, or in writing. The difficulty of providing adequate reference service is dependent upon:

  • The complexity of the records;
  • The nature of the classification system;
  • The clarity and specificity of requests for reference service;
  • The variety and kind of sources from which such requests for service come; and
  • The various kinds of reference service rendered (e.g., loan service, search room service, consultation by telephone, photocopying or microcopying service, etc.).

Searching is the process by which information or material requested is located within and assembled from various files groups or organizational units, the process by which it is determined that a record concerning a designated subject is or is not in the file, or the process by which papers, documents, or other materials that are not present in their proper places in the files are traced through various file groups or organizational units of the agency or records centers. Searching may be relatively complicated as, for example, when:

  • Records are missing from the files without chargeouts indicating the borrower;
  • Vague requests for records or data from records are received and judgment is necessary in selecting information to be extracted from files or in identifying information or records as the material requested;
  • Information in the files is meager or inconsistent and judgment is required to establish that it does or does not pertain to a specific subject;
  • Inconsistencies exist in the operation of the filing and classification system;
  • Analysis of large quantities of material is required in order to obtain and consolidate the information requested;
  • Searching through various filing and classification systems is necessary, as is searching through voluminous and old files and records; or
  • Previous searchers have been unsuccessful using existing leads.

Searching and reference service duties both require:

  • Obtaining from the requester as much information as is possible to identify the record or data;
  • Referring to the classification guides, index, or other finding media to determine the proper location of the materials;
  • Withdrawing material and inserting chargeouts for all material removed from the files; and
  • Following up to assure the return of records within the designated loan period.

The use of indexes, cross-references, or other finding aids is sometimes necessary to locate material in files. These are auxiliary records prepared and maintained to facilitate reference to the primary records. These finding aids are arranged independently of the original file material.

The indexing operation consists of ascertaining the kind of cross-reference selected by the classifier as indicated by symbols (e.g., general, name, or precedent cross-reference; etc.) and determining the information necessary (e.g., brief description of the subject-matter, names, serial numbers, or other distinguishing factors) to provide an effective means of identifying a record. Indexing work may involve responsibility for establishing and maintaining indices to precedent files or to important records such as documents reflecting matters of policy, orders, decisions, and regulations.

The disposition of records or material from records is performed by applying procedures, practices, or precedents promulgated by higher authority for the clearance of records of permanent, semi-active or noncurrent value from the files. Files personnel generally are responsible for:

  • Segregating materials in the files for transfer to semi-active or inactive records to records centers or intermediate depositories;
  • Periodically checking and studying records and preparing reports to assure compliance with established policies and procedures; and
  • Systematically monitoring the files in order that prompt and orderly disposition of records as they become noncurrent can be accomplished.

Many mail and file positions require the processing, filing, and locating of, and accounting for security classified materials (i.e., materials designated confidential, secret, top secret, etc.). The mere fact that employees have contact with such materials does not, in itself, affect the choice of a level on any factor. Rather, the appropriate level is determined by the same elements that determine the level appropriate for mail and file work of any kind. For example, security regulations and procedures and the responsibility involved in the processing and safeguarding of security classified materials is discussed in the factors below, together with other mail and file duties. Under no circumstances will the mere presence of duties involving security classified materials be the basis for assigning a specific grade.

A number of positions in the mail and file occupations may include incidental performance of such duties as providing messenger service and operating vehicles (battery-powered or automotive).

Mail and File Clerk, GS-0305-01

Assists in unit operations by performing a few mail and file and related clerical duties.

  • Receives and sorts incoming mail by office identification symbol. Refers undesignated materials to a senior clerk.
  • Checks outgoing mail for proper address and sorts by destination and dispatches mail.
  • Sorts and arranges materials (correspondence, reports, forms, regulations, etc.) for filing and files those materials that can be readily filed in alphabetical, numerical, or chronological order.
  • Checks and verifies directory listings by comparison with original source, and annotates differences.
  • Performs other clerical and manual duties related to receipt and delivery of mail.
Mail and File Clerk, GS-0305-02

Employee works in a file unit and is responsible for arranging completed case files and preparing them for file.

  • Receives case files that have been assigned a file classification category, arranges them in alphabetical order, and places them in files under established subject file headings. Prepares cross-references as necessary to relate case files to materials previously received, to materials stored in other areas, to indicate receipt of new or related materials, etc.
  • Assists specialists from serviced units and other qualified users of the filing system in locating and obtaining required files.
  • Prepares charge-out cards for cases removed from the filed.
  • Receives standard forms and sequences these by region and alphabetically within region preparatory to filing.
  • Identifies and attaches materials that have been separated from or belong to case files and places them in proper location within files.
Mail and File Clerk, GS-0305-03

Works in a file organization that provides services to an office concerned with processing claims.

  • Receives all types of incoming mail, segregates and arranges in proper working order associating materials by case number with proper file folder, and assigning proper designation to assure priority of processing.
  • Locates appropriate folders in files, identifies both folder and file with name and file number; records charge-out date, destination, and initials charge card; and dispatches 'folder to the proper operating element.
  • Recharges folder file when moved from one operating element to another for control purposes; maintains suspense file of actions to be taken by operating elements at future dates; and initiates search for folders not in file, using charge aids and knowledge of work flow in operating elements.
  • Performs a variety of related duties such as sequence checks, pulling files designated for retirement or transfer, assuring protection of contents of files, expanding or contracting file storage as necessary, and participating in records inventories and record reconciliations.
Mail and File Clerk, GS-0305-04

Conducts extensive searches for records when initial searches have been unproductive.

  • Determines which documents may exist based on whatever information the requester has supplied and on the history of the agency's recordkeeping procedures for the time period involved.
  • Searches for materials when process is complicated by questions arising from need for precedent type documents based on outdated legislation or regulations, and from their having been removed to storage areas, to individually maintained historical files, or to the National Archives.
  • When all efforts to locate within central files are unsuccessful, searches through appropriate headquarters offices files, contacts subject-matter specialists in order to determine whereabouts of required file materials.
  • Reads incoming correspondence and notes all references to previous correspondence. Searches and obtains from files previous correspondence or related subject matter and forwards the assembled material to the proper official for action.
  • Checks and assembles records of central file room prior to their transfer to the records holding area.
  • Performs other related duties such as maintaining up-to-date master file of all administrative circulars, notices and publications and providing complete sets to field offices upon request.
Mail and File Clerk, GS-0305-04

Position is located in the headquarters files and communications element of a regulatory and law enforcement agency with 50 or more field offices. Employee receives a variety of correspondence and reports from field offices and others. Exercises a knowledge of the organization, functions and methodology of the agency in reading, classifying, and marking materials for indexing and cross-referencing.

  • Studies contents of incoming reports and correspondence that concern complex legal and specialized matters. Materials vary in format and thus require determinations regarding adjustments to agency filing systems.
  • Examines materials to identify primary subject matter and assigns proper classification from among numerous overlapping possibilities. Determines file number to be assigned.
  • Selects relevant items from materials for cross-referencing and indexing in accordance with the functions of the agency.
  • Screens for and separates materials related to special projects and programs.
  • Utilizes any one of over 150 overlapping and constantly changing classifications, using caution to assure that related information is not filed in more than one of several interchangeable files.
  • As required, conducts search for reference materials or research to find information related to specific programs or definite violations, considering all possible avenues of approach or reasons why desired information may not yet be in files.
  • Periodically reviews filed material in the light of ongoing programs or special projects and determines if such material should be consolidated, have new classifications, be retired, etc.
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.


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.


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:

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:
  • Association of Executive and Administrative Professionals, 900 South Washington St., Suite G-13, Falls Church, VA 22046. Internet:

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:

Information on virtual assistant certification can be obtained from:

  • International Virtual Assistants Association, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 309, Reno, NV 89503. Internet:

Information on obtaining Mail and File Clerk 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 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.


  • 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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