If you're highly organised and aspire to be key to the smooth running of an organisation, a career as a secretary or administrator would suit you

A secretary or administrator provides both clerical and administrative support to professionals, either as part of a team or individually. They are involved with the coordination and implementation of office procedures and frequently have responsibility for specific projects and tasks. In some cases, they may oversee and supervise the work of junior staff.

The role varies greatly depending on the sector, 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, such as in legal secretarial work, specialist knowledge or qualifications may be required.

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

Responsibilities

As a secretary/administrator, you'll need to:

  • use a word processing package such as Microsoft Word
  • audio and copy type
  • write letters
  • deal with telephone and email enquiries, using an email system (e.g. Outlook)
  • photocopy and print various documents, sometimes on behalf of other colleagues
  • organise and store paperwork, documents and computer-based information
  • create and maintain filing and other office systems
  • keep diaries and arrange appointments
  • schedule and attend meetings, create agendas and take minutes - shorthand may be required
  • book meeting room and conference facilities
  • liaise with staff in other departments and with external contacts
  • order and maintain stationery and equipment
  • organise travel and accommodation for staff and other external contacts.

Depending on the sector and company, you may also carry out the following duties:

  • use a variety of software packages (including Excel, Access and Powerpoint) to manage data and produce documents and presentations
  • use content management systems (CMS) to maintain and update websites and internal databases
  • manage and maintain budgets and carry out invoicing
  • sort and distribute incoming post and organise and send outgoing post (this may involve the use of a franking machine)
  • recruit, train and supervise junior staff and delegate work as required
  • manipulate statistical data
  • arrange in-house and external events
  • arrange training for staff members.

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, property and law firms tend to be at the upper end. Expect starting salaries in the region of £16,000 to £19,000 for roles outside London and £20,000 to £24,000 for jobs in the capital.
  • With experience and increased responsibilities, salaries can rise to £20,000 up to £34,000.

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

A working week typically ranges between 35 to 40 hours, with the working day usually taking place 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 and the need to travel is uncommon, though may be required occasionally, depending on the sector you work in.
  • 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 the 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.
  • Jobs are available in all areas of the UK and opportunities are widespread.

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
  • the ability to accept and understand instructions
  • oral and written communication skills
  • tact, discretion and respect for confidentiality
  • a pleasant, confident telephone manner
  • team working ability
  • reliability and honesty
  • project-management skills
  • a foreign language - may be required in some roles.

Work experience

Relevant experience is often more highly valued than secretarial qualifications, although excellent IT and typing skills (a minimum of 45 words per minute is usually required) will always be an essential requirement. 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.

It's common to find work through secretarial agencies, but applying directly to organisations that appeal to you can be effective. Temporary work can often lead to permanent positions and will provide an opportunity to try different types of secretarial or administrative work.

There are many opportunities in this area of work, so you should find competition is not a problem. However, certain companies and areas of employment may be more competitive than others.

Employers

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

  • academic institutions, including schools, colleges 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 companies.

The nature and variety of the 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, such as Office Angels and Adecco, specialise in secretarial and administrative positions.

Professional development

Initial training usually consists of being taught company policies, procedures and systems. Once in post, your employer may offer you the opportunity to study for further qualifications, or you may wish to undertake some independently, to increase your chances of progression.

You can undertake relevant qualifications including various NVQs, certificates and diplomas in subjects such as:

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

Qualifications are awarded by many bodies including:

Entry to more specialised areas, such as legal or medical secretarial work, may require additional qualifications. 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.

Career prospects

You can develop your career in a number of ways. 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. If you have language skills, you may decide you want to move into a more specialised role such as a bilingual secretary. Or, you could use your organisational skills as an office manager or team secretary, coordinating the work of others within a department or organisation.

In some sectors, such as the charity and property sectors, it's possible 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 offer much potential in terms of future career prospects.

To increase the scope for career development join a professional body such as the Institute of Professional Administrators (IPA). You can also improve promotion prospects by becoming a chartered secretary with ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators). 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.

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.