Going against type

Taking a job as a secretary used to mean a life of tea-making, typing and filing. Not any more. Meg Carter reports on the new breed of graduate-level `exec-utaries'
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The Independent Online
While secretarial work has long been the first step on the ladder for young hopefuls eager to carve out a career in advertising, the media or entertainment industries, this has not been the case for other sectors of business. Until now. A shortage of qualified staff coupled with fundamental changes to the traditional secretary's role is now generating new opportunities for graduates.

British business is facing the worst shortage of secretaries in almost 16 years, according to a survey published last month by Office Angels, one of the UK's largest recruitment agencies. While during the depths of recession there were six candidates for every secretarial or administrative office job, today just one candidate applies for each vacancy.

Laurence Rosen, Office Angels' chief executive, believes there are a number of reasons for this. Economic recovery has stimulated demand. At the same time, increased computer technology in the office has not been matched by adequate training. "Now, these companies are recruiting for qualified secretarial and administrative staff - but can't find anybody," he says. "Too many graduates say: `I've not studied for three or four years to be a secretary.' "

Hardly surprising, some might say. Yet the traditional role of the secretary has fundamentally changed, Mr Rosen points out. As has their position within an organisation and the salaries they can now command. "We are seeing the emergence of graduate-entry people no longer doing what used to be classed `secretarial' - typing and filing. Today, their work is more akin to what was once the exclusive responsibility of junior executives."

He prefers to call these positions `exec-utaries' rather than `administrative assistants': "The truth is, they're not assisting anyone - they're doing it all themselves." One 29-year-old secretary in a major drinks company now manages a 400-strong fleet of cars, he says. Another co-ordinates 300 stationery stores. And, he stresses, a growing number of them are male.

Joanne Walker, 21, graduated in history and educational studies last June and was recently appointed assistant PA to the chairman of Princedale plc. "In the beginning, I contemplated teaching but wasn't convinced. I drifted through university unsure what I wanted to do," she admits. Having unsuccessfully applied for a number of jobs, she enrolled in a four-month Pitman's PA course.

"I had no computer skills whatsoever," she says. "It seemed a good thing to do." Even more so when she saw the salaries an experienced PA could command. Secretarial salaries have risen from an average pounds l7,000 a year in 1993 to between pounds l9,000 and pounds 2l,500; for a successful PA this can rise to around pounds 26,000. "The job's appeal was its variety and the chance to work with top people," she adds. "Today, much, much more responsibility is now passed down to the traditional secretary."

Others inevitably see secretarial work as a stopgap or stepping stone. Kofo Are, 25, is a chemistry and business studies graduate working at technology and IT company CSK. "I started here as a temp - setting up the database. Within two months I was offered a job as sales and marketing co-ordinator," she says.

Are also took a PA course, although admits this was to get computer skills and learn presentational software: "Companies want a lot of computer skills, she says. "I picked specific packages that would be most in demand." Having a degree, she adds, may mean you have a brain, but "companies increasingly want to know what you can do for them".

At L'Oreal, personnel officer Odette McMahon says the vast majority of those applying for secretarial jobs with the company are now graduates. As secretaries, around half of their work will be secretarial, the other half will be admin support. Traditional secretarial roles have changed significantly, she says.

"Exposure is given to customer and market research, increased use of multimedia, multi-skilled `intelligent support roles' - rather than the typing pool - involving increasingly sophisticated interpersonal skills." Recruitment of graduates stems from a need for fluent French speakers, she adds. "If non-graduates existed with these skills, they would also form a preferred pool of candidates."

Many graduates entering companies at secretary - or `execu-tary' - level subsequently move department, or company, McMahon admits. "Many regard it as a stepping stone - which can be a problem for us, and for the candidates as well."

Mr Rosen concedes this "just passing through" attitude to secretarial work might put off some potential employers. However, he says, the times are changing. "A growing minority of graduates - men and women - have tried every other way into full-time employment and say: `I'll try it.' And an even smaller yet rapidly growing minority are saying: `Yes. This works for me.' "