A personal assistant (PA), sometimes called an executive secretary or personal/private secretary, works closely with senior managerial or directorial staff to provide administrative support, usually on a one-to-one basis. PAs help managers to make the best use of their time by dealing with secretarial and administrative tasks.
PAs need extensive knowledge of the organisation in which they work. They need to know who key personnel are (both external and internal) and understand the organisation's aims and objectives.
Managers often rely heavily on their PA, trusting that work will be handled efficiently in their absence. Discretion and confidentiality are therefore essential attributes for a successful PA.
Personal assistants (PAs) often act as the manager's first point of contact with people from both inside and outside the organisation. Tasks are likely to include:
In addition to supporting managers, their team and departments, many PAs also have their own personal workload and responsibilities. The scope of the PA's role can be extensive and additional duties may include:
Some PAs do all the secretarial work themselves, while others take responsibility for recruiting and training junior staff and delegate some of the less demanding and confidential work to them.
Salary figures are intended as a guide only.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates and those with an HND, a degree in business or management may increase your chances. Some subjects are more relevant for certain industries, e.g. English literature for publishing; law for legal work. For HND holders, the following subjects may increase your chances:
Entry without a degree or HND/foundation degree is possible as personal qualities, experience and general office skills are generally considered more important.
GCSE English and mathematics (or equivalent) are standard entry requirements for many positions.
Most positions will require a minimum of two years' relevant experience, which will generally have been gained in a more junior secretarial or administrative role. Working as a temp, either during or after your studies, can provide the opportunity to acquire office experience and develop higher-level secretarial skills. Many personal assistants (PAs) will have worked their way up from office junior and general secretarial roles.
It is unlikely that a graduate will enter directly into a PA position because of the level of experience expected. However, it is not impossible and one way of increasing your chances would be to study for a relevant qualification. The LCCI International Qualifications Private/Executive Secretary's Diploma and the Pitman Training Executive PA Diploma are both designed to equip students with the skills essential for this profession.
In addition to relevant experience and secretarial/administrative knowledge, candidates will need to show evidence of the following:
There are also a number of specific skills which may give you a competitive advantage. For example, shorthand and audio typing are still widely used. Teeline and Pitman courses teach industry-standard shorthand systems and typing speeds - see Teeline Online for shorthand lessons. OCR Examinations Board also provides relevant vocational qualifications in business and administration. Knowledge of a foreign language may be useful in some positions.
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Training takes place mainly on the job. Experienced secretaries may supervise new entrants until they are competent in the work. Larger companies may provide an induction course, lasting a few days, to introduce you to the various areas of the business. They may also provide short courses in areas such as:
In smaller companies, you will usually have to do training in your own time and on your own initiative, although employers may be willing to pay for relevant courses.
It is possible to undertake part-time study while you are working. The following organisations offer relevant qualifications, which can normally be studied over one or two years:
It is also possible to take a business administration degree course.
Membership of professional bodies such as the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM) or the Association of Personal Assistants (APA) is also useful. The former professional body for administrators, the Institute of Professional Administrators (IPA), has been aligned with the IAM since January 2012. This is to reflect the career aims of its members who increasingly want to move into management and now have more responsibility for managing people.
The IAM is now the leading professional body for business leaders, administration managers and professional administrators. See the IAM website for information on membership, events, online training courses and details of endorsed qualifications, such as the Level 4 Diploma in Administrative Management, available from relevant awarding bodies.
The APA runs a range of training courses aimed at new and experienced PAs and provides information and advice to members.
After gaining qualifications, skills and experience, personal assistants (PAs) can join a relevant professional body, such as the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM) or the Association of Personal Assistants (APA) , which can be useful for career development and can provide access to a wealth of advice and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities.
Full membership of the IAM (MInstAM) is open to anyone who meets one of the following requirements:
The IAM also offers student and graduate membership. See their website for more details on the different levels of membership available.
You can also apply for membership of the chartered or professional body of the sector within which you are working. In marketing, for example, this would be the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and in human resources, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) .
With experience, progression can be rapid. PAs can work their way up to more senior posts with responsibility for junior staff. Promotion can also be to PA to a more senior manager or in a larger or more prestigious company. Moves are also possible within the industry by developing the role, contacts and knowledge to move on from administration to other departments.
A PA can progress to executive assistant (EA). This role combines the business-related role of the PA with the additional responsibility of organising a manager's personal life. The salary is often higher than that of a PA but the hours may be longer and the role involves working very closely with a manager.
PA work can provide a unique insight into how a business operates and how decisions are made at the highest levels. This kind of experience can prove valuable for PAs who want to become managers themselves. The skills gained in PA work can also be used in other sectors, such as human resources, marketing and public relations.
It is also possible to specialise in a specific sector, for example as a legal or medical PA. These jobs may attract higher salaries but may also require additional qualifications.
Some experienced PAs decide to work as virtual assistants on a self-employed basis. Virtual assistants work from home giving their time in blocks to a range of clients. Some PAs work as virtual assistants as part of a portfolio career, combining the role with other kinds of work, sometimes even developing a hobby into a business. This career flexibility can be appealing. For more information, see The UK Association of Virtual Assistants . Self-employment is usually only possible for PAs with substantial experience.
Personal assistants (PAs) work in a range of large, medium-sized and small organisations across all sectors. Positions can be found in:
Specialist recruitment agencies such as Gordon Yates and Secs in the City and online jobsites such as Secretarial Careers commonly handle vacancies. Larger and more general agencies also handle PA vacancies and are a good way of finding temping opportunities. For a list of relevant member agencies, search the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) consultancy finder.
Look out for special events aimed at personal assistants, for example Office - an annual exhibition and conference aimed at PAs, executive assistants and officer managers.
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