A secretary or administrator provides both clerical and administrative support to professionals, either as part of a team or individually. The role plays a vital part in the administration and smooth-running of businesses throughout industry.

Secretaries/administrators are involved with the coordination and implementation of office procedures and frequently have responsibility for specific projects and tasks and, in some cases, oversee and supervise the work of junior staff.

The role varies greatly depending on the sector, the size of the employer and levels of responsibility. Most work involves both written and oral communication, word processing and typing, and requires relevant skills such as IT, organisational and presentation skills, as well as the ability to multi-task and work well under pressure.

In some cases, secretaries/administrators are required to have high-level qualifications and previous experience in specialist sectors, such as law, for example.

The role can often overlap with that of a personal assistant.

Responsibilities

Common tasks include:

  • word processing;
  • audio and copy typing;
  • letter writing;
  • dealing with telephone and email enquiries;
  • creating and maintaining filing systems;
  • scheduling and attending meetings, creating agendas and taking minutes - shorthand may be required;
  • keeping diaries and arranging appointments;
  • organising travel for staff.

Depending on the sector, the role may also include many of the following:

  • using a variety of software packages, such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, Powerpoint, Excel, Access, etc., to produce correspondence and documents and to maintain presentations, records, spreadsheets and databases;
  • devising and maintaining office systems;
  • booking rooms and conference facilities;
  • using content management systems to maintain and update websites and internal databases;
  • managing and maintaining budgets, as well as invoicing;
  • liaising with staff in other departments and with external contacts;
  • ordering and maintaining stationery and equipment;
  • sorting and distributing incoming post and organising and sending outgoing post;
  • arranging travel and accommodation for staff or customers and other external contacts;
  • liaising with colleagues and external contacts to book travel and accommodation;
  • organising and storing paperwork, documents and computer-based information;
  • photocopying and printing various documents, sometimes on behalf of other colleagues;
  • recruiting, training and supervising junior staff and delegating work as required;
  • manipulating statistical data;
  • arranging in-house and external events.

Salary

  • Jobs in the media, not-for-profit sectors and small organisations are at the lower end of the pay scale. Employment in banking, finance and law firms tend to be at the upper end. Expect £16,000 to £19,000 for roles outside London and £20,000 to £24,000 in London.
  • After substantial experience and with increased responsibilities, salaries can rise to £28,000 to £33,000.

Gaining chartership or extra qualifications, or finding employment with a FTSE 100 company, may result in a higher salary. Annual and performance-related bonuses exist in some sectors.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working weeks typically range between 35 to 40 hours a week, with a working day usually being somewhere between 8am and 6pm. Flexi-time is sometimes available depending on the organisation.

Interim, part-time and temporary roles are common. Career breaks are possible if skills, especially IT, are maintained.

What to expect

  • Work is almost entirely office-based.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is unusual.
  • Jobs are available in all areas of the UK and opportunities are widespread.
  • This is traditionally a female role and the majority of secretarial jobs are still held by women.
  • The nature of the role is to support colleagues and projects rather than to take a lead on projects yourself, which may become frustrating.
  • The role can be stressful at times, since the work is always focused on the needs of the manager or team. Deadlines may be imposed suddenly, demanding flexibility and reprioritisation of workload.
  • Travel within a working day, overnight absence from home and overseas work or travel are all uncommon but may be required depending on the role.

Qualifications

Varying levels of qualifications are required for this role, depending on the employer and sector. Some may be more concerned with prior experience and skills, whereas others may want formal qualifications.

For roles with more responsibility, the following degree and HND subjects may increase your chances:

  • business or management;
  • business with languages;
  • government or public administration;
  • law;
  • secretarial studies.

Secretarial courses specifically aimed at graduates are available, often through private colleges. Specific secretarial training is useful for entry to legal or medical roles.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • strong organisational skills;
  • presentation skills and attention to detail;
  • the ability to plan your own work, work on your own initiative and meet deadlines;
  • the ability to manage pressure and conflicting demands and prioritise tasks and workload;
  • oral and written communication skills;
  • tact, discretion and respect for confidentiality;
  • a pleasant, confident telephone manner;
  • teamwork;
  • reliability and honesty;
  • project management skills.

Knowledge of another common business language may boost potential earnings.

Work experience

Relevant experience is often more highly valued than secretarial qualifications, although excellent IT and typing skills will always be an essential requirement.

Temporary work can often lead to permanent positions and, if you do not have much previous experience, a temporary or part-time job will provide an opportunity to try different types of secretarial or administrative work. This can help you to decide which aspects of this work you particularly enjoy and what sort of employer or sector you would like to work with.

Competition is not usually severe since there are so many opportunities, although this depends heavily on the area of employment. The demand for skilled, experienced staff remains high. Exact requirements for particular typing speeds and knowledge vary from vacancy to vacancy depending on the nature of the post, but a minimum typing speed of 45wpm is usually required.

It is common to find work through secretarial agencies, but applying directly to organisations that appeal to you can be effective.

Employers value experience and a mature attitude in this field of work, so mature entry and an established work history are likely to be useful for more senior roles.

Employers

As secretarial and administrative work is so diverse, employment can be found in virtually all sectors, including:

  • academic institutions and universities;
  • creative industries, such as advertising or publishing;
  • government;
  • hospitals and general medical practices;
  • legal and financial services;
  • management and strategic consulting;
  • marketing and communications;
  • private companies;
  • property;
  • public organisations, including local authorities and charities;
  • retail and leisure.

The nature and variety of work you undertake will vary according to the size of the business you work for. Large organisations may provide more routine work but could offer more scope for promotion and experience in other departments.

Some small businesses may expect you to perform a very traditional administration function, but others could give you extra responsibility if they only have a small staff, which could provide additional, useful experience.

Look for job vacancies at:

A large number of recruitment agencies specialise in secretarial and administrative positions.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Initial training usually consists of being taught company policies, procedures and systems. Once in post, it is not essential to study for further qualifications but they may be offered by your employer, or you may wish to undertake some to increase your chances of progression.

Relevant qualifications include various NVQs, certificates and diplomas in subjects such as:

  • audio transcriptions;
  • business and administration;
  • IT;
  • typing.

Qualifications are awarded by many bodies including:

Full-time, fast-track courses are available and are often favoured by graduates as they can be completed quickly and provide wide-ranging knowledge of office procedures and secretarial skills.

Entry to more specialised areas, such as legal or medical secretarial work, may require additional qualifications, sometimes offered through trainee positions or by gaining extra accreditation on a secretarial course through relevant professional bodies.

It is important to keep up to date with new technology and take advantage of any training courses offered, either externally or in-house. The range of IT skills you need will depend on your specific role, but you may wish to take training in Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Access or statistical packages or web-authoring and design.

Training in some soft skills, such as assertiveness or customer service, may also be available.

Other common areas of training for secretaries/administrators include:

  • first aid;
  • health and safety;
  • industry and company procedures;
  • records and content management;
  • time management.

Career prospects

There are a number of ways in which your career could develop. You may wish to specialise in one industry or area, such as legal or medical secretarial work, or become a personal assistant to a company director or other senior manager.

Alternatively, you could choose to use your organisational skills as an office manager or team secretary, coordinating the work of others within a department or organisation.

It is possible in some sectors, such as charities, property or large organisations, to move up through internal vacancies and opportunities, or perhaps move into other areas of the company such as sales or marketing. Therefore, working in administration in a sector that you are interested in can be a good 'foot in the door'.

To increase the scope for career development join a professional body such as the Institute of Professional Administrators (IPA). Membership of a professional body in the area that you are looking to move into can help you make the transition and show that you are serious about a career in that area.

Another possible promotion route is to become a chartered secretary with the ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators). Chartered secretaries are trained in a variety of areas including corporate law, finance, governance and management and have to take several exams. After becoming chartered and with substantial experience, it may be possible to move into roles such as company secretary, chief executive or director of legal services.

If you have language skills, you may decide you want to move into a more specialised role such as a bilingual secretary. In this role you would be combining language and administrative skills to interpret, translate and summarise information.

Alternatively, you may wish to develop other specific skills for certain roles. For example, you could use your shorthand skills to become a verbatim reporter, attending court hearings and making records of the outcome.