Secretaries, also called administrative assistants, perform a wide range of jobs that vary greatly from business to business. However, most secretaries key in documents, manage records and information, answer telephones, handle correspondence, schedule appointments, make travel arrangements, and sort mail. The amount of time secretaries spend on these duties depends on the size and type of the office as well as on their own job training. There are approximately 4.1 million secretaries employed in the United States.
History of Secretary Career
Today, as in the past, secretaries play an important role in keeping lines of communication open. Before there were telephones, messages were transmitted by hand, often from the secretary of one party to the secretary of the receiving party. Their trustworthiness was valued because the lives of many people often hung in the balance of certain communications.
Secretaries in the ancient world developed methods of taking abbreviated notes so that they could capture as much as possible of their employers’ words. In 16th-century England, the modern precursors of the shorthand methods we know today were developed. In the 19th century, Isaac Pitman and John Robert Gregg developed the shorthand systems that are still used in offices and courtrooms in the United States.
The equipment secretaries use in their work has changed drastically in recent years. Almost every office is automated in some way. Familiarity with machines such as switchboards, Dictaphones, photocopiers, fax machines, and personal computers has become an integral part of the secretary’s day-to-day work.
The Job of Secretaries
Secretaries perform a variety of administrative and clerical duties. The goal of all their activities is to assist their employers in the execution of their work and to help their companies conduct business in an efficient and professional manner.
Secretaries’ work includes processing and transmitting information to the office staff and to other organizations. They operate office machines and arrange for their repair or servicing. These machines include computers, typewriters, dictating machines, photocopiers, switchboards, and fax machines. Secretaries also order office supplies and perform regular duties such as answering phones, sorting mail, managing files, taking dictation, and composing and keying in letters.
Some offices have word processing centers that handle all of the firm’s typing. In such a situation, administrative secretaries take care of all secretarial duties except for typing and dictation. This arrangement leaves them free to respond to correspondence, prepare reports, do research and present the results to their employers, and otherwise assist the professional staff. Often these secretaries work in groups of three or four so that they can help each other if one secretary has a workload that is heavier than normal.
In many offices, secretaries make appointments for company executives and keep track of the office schedule. They make travel arrangements for the professional staff or for clients, and occasionally are asked to travel with staff members on business trips. Other secretaries might manage the office while their supervisors are away on vacation or business trips.
Secretaries take minutes at meetings, write up reports, and compose and type letters. They often will find their responsibilities growing as they learn the business. Some are responsible for finding speakers for conferences, planning receptions, and arranging public relations programs. Some write copy for brochures or articles before making the arrangements to have them printed or microfilmed, or they might use desktop publishing software to create the documents themselves. They greet clients and guide them to the proper offices, and they often supervise and train other staff members and newer secretaries, especially in the use of computer software programs.
Some secretaries perform very specialized work. Legal secretaries prepare legal papers including wills, mortgages, contracts, deeds, motions, complaints, and summonses. They work under the direct supervision of an attorney or paralegal. They assist with legal research by reviewing legal journals and organizing briefs for their employers. They must learn an entire specialized vocabulary that is used in legal papers and documents.
Medical secretaries take medical histories of patients; make appointments; prepare and send bills to patients; track and collect bills; process insurance billing; maintain medical files; and pursue correspondence with patients, hospitals, and associations. They assist physicians or medical scientists with articles, reports, speeches, and conference proceedings. Some medical secretaries are responsible for ordering medical supplies. They, too, need to learn an entire specialized vocabulary of medical terms and be familiar with laboratory or hospital procedures.
Technical secretaries work for engineers and scientists preparing reports and papers that often include graphics and mathematical equations that are difficult to format on paper. The secretaries maintain a technical library and help with scientific papers by gathering and editing materials.
Social secretaries, often called personal secretaries, arrange all of their employer’s social activities. They handle private as well as business social affairs and may plan parties, send out invitations, or write speeches for their employers. Social secretaries are often hired by celebrities or high-level executives who have busy social calendars to maintain.
Many associations, clubs, and nonprofit organizations have membership secretaries who compile and send out newsletters or promotional materials while maintaining membership lists, dues records, and directories. Depending on the type of club, the secretary may be the one who gives out information to prospective members and who keeps current members and related organizations informed of upcoming events.
Education secretaries work in elementary or secondary schools or on college campuses. They take care of all clerical duties at the school. Their responsibilities may include preparing bulletins and reports for teachers, parents, or students, keeping track of budgets for school supplies or student activities, and maintaining the school’s calendar of events. Depending on the position, they may work for school administrators, principals, or groups of teachers or professors. Other education secretaries work in administration offices, state education departments, or service departments.
Secretary Career Requirements
You will need at least a high school diploma to enter this field. To prepare for a career as a secretary, take high school courses in business, English, and speech. Keyboarding and computer science courses will also be helpful.
To succeed as a secretary, you will need good office skills that include rapid and accurate keyboarding skills and good spelling and grammar. You should enjoy handling details. Some positions require typing a minimum number of words per minute, as well as shorthand ability. Knowledge of word processing, spreadsheet, and database management is important, and most employers require it. Some of these skills can be learned in business education courses taught at vocational and business schools. Special training programs are available for students who want to become medical or legal secretaries or administrative technology assistants.
Certification or Licensing
Qualifying for the designations certified professional secretary (CPS) or certified administrative professional (CAP) is increasingly recognized in business and industry as a consideration for promotion as a senior level secretary. The International Association of Administrative Professionals gives the examinations required for these certifications. Secretaries with limited experience can become an accredited legal secretary (ALS) by obtaining certification from the Certifying Board of the National Association of Legal Secretaries. Those with at least three years of experience in the legal field can be certified as a professional legal secretary (PLS) from this same organization. Legal Secretaries International offers the certified legal secretary specialist (CLSS) designation in areas such as business law, probate, criminal law, and civil litigation to those who have at least five years of law-related experience and who pass an examination.
Personal qualities are important in this field of work. As a secretary, you will often be the first employee that clients meet, and therefore you must be friendly, poised, and professionally dressed. Because you must work closely with others, you should be personable and tactful. Discretion, good judgment, organizational ability, and initiative are also important. These traits will not only get you hired but will also help you advance in your career.
Some employers encourage their secretaries to take advanced courses and to be trained to use any new piece of equipment in the office. Requirements vary widely from company to company.
Exploring Secretary Career
High school guidance counselors can give interest and aptitude tests to help you assess your suitability for a career as a secretary. Local business schools often welcome visitors, and sometimes offer courses that can be taken in conjunction with a high school business course. Work-study programs will also provide you with an opportunity to work in a business setting to get a sense of the work performed by secretaries.
Part-time or summer jobs as receptionists, file clerks, and office clerks are often available in various offices. These jobs are the best indicators of future satisfaction in the secretarial field. You may find a part-time job if you are computer-literate. Cooperative education programs arranged through schools and “temping” through an agency also are valuable ways to acquire experience. In general, any job that teaches basic office skills is helpful.
There are 4.1 million secretaries employed throughout the United States, making this profession one of the largest in the country. Of this total, 272,000 specialize as legal secretaries and 373,000 work as medical secretaries. Secretaries are employed in almost every type of industry. From health care, banking, financial services, and real estate to construction, manufacturing, transportation, communications, and retail and wholesale trade. A large number of secretaries are employed by federal, state, and local governments.
Most people looking for work as secretaries find jobs through the newspaper want ads or by applying directly to local businesses. Both private employment offices and state employment services place secretaries, and business schools help their graduates find suitable jobs. Temporary- help agencies also are an excellent way to find jobs, some of which may turn into permanent ones.
Secretaries often begin by assisting executive secretaries and work their way up by learning the way their business operates. Initial promotions from a secretarial position are usually to jobs such as secretarial supervisor, office manager, or administrative assistant. Depending on other personal qualifications, college courses in business, accounting, or marketing can help the ambitious secretary enter middle and upper management. Training in computer skills can also lead to advancement. Secretaries who become proficient in word processing, for instance, can get jobs as instructors or as sales representatives for software manufacturers.
Many legal secretaries, with additional training and schooling, become paralegals. Secretaries in the medical field can advance into the fields of radiological and surgical records or medical transcription.
Salaries for secretaries vary widely by region; type of business; and the skill, experience, and level of responsibility of the secretary. Secretaries (except legal, medical, and executive) earned an average of $26,110 annually in 2004. Medical secretaries earned salaries averaging $26,540, and ranging from less than $19,140 to $39,140 or more per year in 2004, according to the United States Department of Labor. Legal secretaries made an average of $36,720 in 2004. Salaries for legal secretaries ranged from $23,270 to more than $56,590 annually. An attorney’s rank in the firm will also affect the earnings of a legal secretary; secretaries who work for a partner will earn higher salaries than those who work for an associate. The median salary for executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants was $34,970 in 2004, with salaries ranging from less than $28,500 to more than $43,430.
Secretaries, especially those working in the legal profession, earn considerably more if certified. Most secretaries receive paid holidays and two weeks vacation after a year of work, as well as sick leave. Many offices provide benefits including health and life insurance, pension plans, overtime pay, and tuition reimbursement.
Most secretaries work in pleasant offices with modern equipment. Office conditions vary widely, however. While some secretaries have their own offices and work for one or two executives, others share crowded workspace with other workers.
Most office workers work 35–40 hours a week. Very few secretaries work on the weekends on a regular basis, although some may be asked to work overtime if a particular project demands it.
The work is not physically strenuous or hazardous, although deadline pressure is a factor and sitting for long periods of time can be uncomfortable. Many hours spent in front of a computer can lead to eyestrain or repetitive-motion problems for secretaries. Most secretaries are not required to travel. Part-time and flexible schedules are easily adaptable to secretarial work.
Secretary Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that overall employment for secretaries will grow more slowly than the average through 2014. However, opportunities for secretaries who specialize in legal, medical, and executive fields will grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Those secretaries who do not specialize in one area can expect slower than average job opportunities. Industries such as administrative and support services, health care and social assistance, private education services, and professional, scientific, and technical services will create the most new job opportunities. As common with large occupations, the need to replace retiring workers will generate many openings.
Computers, fax machines, electronic mail, copy machines, and scanners are some technological advancements that have greatly improved the work productivity of secretaries. Company downsizing and restructuring, in some cases, have redistributed traditional secretarial duties to other employees. There has been a growing trend in assigning one secretary to assist two or more managers, adding to this field’s decline. Though more professionals are using personal computers for their correspondence, some administrative duties will still need to be handled by secretaries. The personal aspects of the job and responsibilities such as making travel arrangements, scheduling conferences, and transmitting staff instructions have not changed.
Many employers currently complain of a shortage of capable secretaries. Those with skills (especially computer skills) and experience will have the best chances for employment. Specialized secretaries should attain certification in their field to stay competitive.