Graduation to dictation

Secretarial work is increasingly seen by graduates - men and women - as a first step on the ladder, says Amy McLellan

Bosses may want to be extra nice to their secretaries right now. In a booming job market, experienced staff can take their pick of the jobs - and salaries are going up as a result. According to the Angela Mortimer Group, a secretarial recruitment company, London-based personal assistants were able to boost their salary by £3,000 last year by moving jobs. And it's not just those at the top of the secretarial ladder who are in demand: an acute shortage of temps is expected to lift rates by up to 15 per cent in the coming year.

"The market is very candidate-driven right now, and there are hundreds of jobs but not enough people," says Claire Ashley, director of London-based recruitment agency Michael Page Secretarial.

Typical salaries in London are running from £18,000 to £25,000, with the media-related industries at the lower end of the pay scale, and the finance sector at the upper end. Outside London, salaries reflect regional employment trends and may range from £11,000 to £18,000.

These pay brackets hide a complex grading of skills, responsibilities and experience. Clerical and administrative jobs tend to be entry-level jobs, requiring a good telephone manner and strong keyboard skills. Senior and team secretaries usually have several years of experience, and will provide admin and office support to small teams of professionals. Legal and medical secretaries work in specialist fields and have the relevant diploma. Office managers supervise staff and may handle recruitment and purchasing. Personal or executive assistants, usually known as PAs, tend to provide high-level support, often on a one-to-one basis, to very senior managers, and can earn upwards of £30,000. Some high-flyers, who keep Britain's FTSE 100 directors on track, can pull in more than £50,000. Paul Jacobs, managing director of the recruitment agency Office Angels, prefers to use the term "executary" to describe these top PAs.

"These people are working at an executive level, and this title sums that up," says Jacobs, adding that the role has changed out of all recognition over the last 15 years. "When companies stripped out a lot of middle managers in the early 1990s, many of their responsibilities were taken on by secretaries. So you will often find secretaries operating the company car fleet, organising the annual conference, and doing project and research work."

PAs can find themselves involved in a wide range of tasks, including PR and marketing, travel arrangements, corporate hospitality, diary management and ensuring the smooth-running of the office, buying in supplies, booking translators and organising teleconferences. The "to do" list is complicated when one secretary is shared among a number of bosses, an increasingly common situation that can create tension and requires expert time-management skills.

In fact, the skills required of a secretary today amount to something of a corporate wish-list. The successful secretary must be an excellent communicator - "both diplomatic and assertive" says one seasoned hand - and be able to juggle numerous tasks, work to deadlines, and manage multiple projects. Touch-typing and shorthand are no longer must-have skills - although a speedy type-rate is essential and shorthand can prove invaluable. Employers are instead looking for a solid working knowledge of Word, PowerPoint and Excel (a secretarial or computer skills course from the likes of Pitman Training or Edexcel is advisable if you have any doubts about your competency in these packages).

Languages, especially French and Spanish, are useful and can attract a premium salary and open up travel opportunities.

A good secretary must also keep the confidences of the boss, which may include details of his or her professional and personal life. "It can be a lonely position," says Marry Norris, who runs a secretarial recruitment agency in Henley-on-Thames. "Everyone comes to you to see your boss, bringing gossip and trying to get past you, but you can't share anything."

The changing nature of the job has affected the demographics. Office Angels reckons that between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of its secretaries are men, while Michael Page Secretarial boasts that over 50 per cent of its candidates are graduates. In a world where graduate training schemes are on the wane and student debt on the rise, starting working life as a secretary is an increasingly attractive option.

"It's a good way to get your foot in the door of a company," explains Claire Ashley, director of Michael Page Secretarial. "Once you have learnt the ropes, it's a lot easier to get recognised, and most companies will look at their own resource pool first when it comes to filling vacancies. "

Paul Jacobs of Office Angels echoes this. "We get quite a few graduates wanting secretarial jobs because it's seen as a fast-track into positions where you can have exposure to very senior management."

www.officeangels.com

www.michaelpage.co.uk

www.angelamortimer.com

www.marynorris.com

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