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The Evolution of the Secretary

Jessica Harper

When Kemetia Foley registered for an International Association of Administrative Professionals meeting in Reno, Nev., nearly six years ago, she mostly planned to make a few contacts and take some best-practice ideas back to her supervisor. Foley, a finance and customer service coordinator for the American Staffing Association who has worked as an administrative professional for 21 years, says she never expected her entire career perspective to change.

But it did. "I suddenly realized how many industries we supported and how pervasive we are in terms of keeping the CEOs and managers on track," she says.

The event opened Foley's eyes to the work of countless peers who are invested in improving their field as well as the varied titles they hold and distinctive tasks they complete each day. Today's administrative professionals must understand Microsoft Office Suite backward and forward, prepare emergency readiness binders at the drop of a hat, and repair malfunctioning copiers and fax machines with ease. In many instances, the men and women of this field are the lifeblood that keeps the office pumping at full speed. And their jobs can serve as a springboard to higher-level managerial, specialist, or directorial positions.

The administrative assistant profession should grow 5.8 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also projects an additional 156,000 openings for executive assistants. Medical administrative positions are expected to have the most openings in the field, due to accelerated growth of the healthcare industry.

If ensuring an office's productivity level never reaches anything lower than fever pitch sounds like a challenge you'd like to conquer, consider these four tips to get you started:

1. Fine-tune your multitasking skills. Foley says administrative assistants are like "traffic cops," constantly directing the flow of office bustle. They should be comfortable balancing several tasks at once. "If we go offline, the office goes offline," Foley says. "It's kind of a multiplier effect."

Daily tasks include manning busy phone lines, but they could also involve fixing and activating technology, says certified administrative professional Stacey Brewer. A former secretary and current executive assistant for Redstone Federal Credit Union in Huntsville, Ala., Brewer juggles several tasks each day. He has created a new style guide for Redstone, and updated the company's letterhead to a universal, more user-friendly version. According to Brewer, he works at a managerial level minus the title. "I'm a project manager. I'm a leadership consultant," he says. "There are so many different titles I can assign myself."

Add "tech guru" to that list. "We have an IT department, but you're not going to go there necessarily for every single issue," he says. "A lot of times my bosses come out and say, 'My iPad is not working, fix it.' I have to possess some sort of understanding of that type of software."

2. Heighten your 'soft' skills. Superior people skills behoove anyone interested in breaking into this profession, Brewer says. Administrative assistants need to not only communicate with customers and vendors, but also with executives and managers. "A lot of times, as an administrative professional, we have a good idea of what's going on because we are so involved in so many different things," he says. "Generally, we know more about what's going on in the organization than, say, the executive does. It's very important that we are able to communicate and see those things that are going on and discuss them when needed."

3. Master Microsoft Office Suite. Today's administrative and executive assistants are active in the production of public presentations, which often involves preparing slides in Microsoft PowerPoint. Others are expected to maintain Microsoft Office Access databases, or input office contacts into Excel spreadsheets. Brewer says admins must stay up to date on software improvements because they change so rapidly. He recalls being shocked to meet a peer who didn't know how to use the latest software. "I was floored and couldn't move past the fact that this woman didn't know how to set up a presentation," he says. "To me, that's sad because it limits your opportunity. In order to stay marketable in this profession and in this society and in this economy, you have to stay up to date."

4. Maintain a realistic view of your promotion potential. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to a higher job title. But often, Brewer says, lower-rung admins are so focused on moving up the corporate ladder that they miss the bigger picture. "You're not going to walk out of college and be at an executive assistant level. And if you do, it's not smart [to begin at a higher level if you're new to the field]," he says. In Brewer's view, beginning at a lower level is the best way for administrative professionals to succeed because it gives them ample time to grasp the mechanics of the profession. "You have to start out somewhere. And starting as an office clerk, an office manager, or an administrative assistant--that's the level where you're going to learn."

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