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November 14th, 2006 - Mallery Nagle

Right arms

Executive assistants carry more responsibilities, higher salaries than yesteryear\'s secretary

Once upon a time, business executives had secretaries who typed, took dictation and fetched their coffee.

"It's a whole different world now," says Sheila Lawrence, director of recruiting for Express Professional Staffing.

According to Lawrence, the term "secretary" is practically an anachronism today, dying out with Dictaphones and the demand for shorthand.

"The days of typing on a word processor, or just typing period, are gone," she said.

"Secretaries" have been replaced by "executive assistants," "administrative assistants" or even "right arms." And, says Lawrence, these changes have far more to do with job descriptions and demands than with political correctness.

"They have to have strong technology skills," she said. "What we've seen is a natural evolution because technology has made it possible for that person to have different time on their hands to be available to the boss more than ever before."

Before personal computers, she said, managers and executives would dictate a document and the secretary would transcribe it on a word processor or typewriter, which cost time - much time.

Lawrence estimates that up to 95 percent of managers, executives and attorneys today draft their own correspondence and documents on a personal computer and then send them to the assistant for "polishing up."

"A very big number of executive assistants today have a much higher level of technical skills," Lawrence said.

Job descriptions she sees require proficiency in Excel Spreadsheets, Microsoft Word, Power Point, Access for large databases and the ability to handle electronic calendars.

"Executives are sharing more and more pieces of the business process with the assistant which helps them to support him or her better," Lawrence added. "Executives might have the assistant sit-in on meetings so they are informed on the process."

Executive assistants must be "extremely articulate," have strong spelling skills and solid knowledge of grammar to make sure everything leaving the boss' office is "perfection," Lawrence said.

"They have to be good with people and they need appropriate phone call screening skills," she said. "They need to be savvy enough to ask appropriate questions so the boss can be prepared for the return call.

They're more part of the process. They help because they make the boss more efficient."

All of these abilities, of course, require training.

"Over the last five years, it has become more common for a four-year college degree to be a real requirement," Lawrence said. She noted a bachelor's degree reflects a more well-rounded individual and someone who follows through with things.

However, she says, executive assistants are groomed over time, and those without a college degree can be highly successful in the field.

"You have to be developed into a top-notch assistant, and many of those have come from the school of life," she said. "It's a process."

Knowledge of the company, how it runs and how the executive works are critical assistant tools.

Good assistants, she says, frequently stay with their executives for a long time. Her company's CEO, Bob Funk, has had the same assistant for more than 30 years.

Although Lawrence does not call the demand for executive assistants "great," she said she has placed about a dozen such employees in the last four months.

"As long as there are executives and managers, there will be the demand for executive assistants, administrative assistants or right arms," she said. "I don't know of any busy, successful manager, attorney or doctor who doesn't have an executive assistant."

Experienced assistants, she said, can command $40,000-$60,000 per year.

"I have a great amount of respect for people who do this work," Lawrence said. "A good boss knows he or she would not be as successful without an executive assistant."

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