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The Administrative Assistant: Then & Now

An administrative assistant looks into the camera

To celebrate Administrative Professionals Week – not to mention Administrative Professionals Day on April 24th – we’re shining a spotlight on the role of the administrative assistant and how it has evolved from the stereotypical secretary – the exclusively female, coffee-fetching eye-candy – to the respected, relied-upon cornerstone of any organization’s daily operations whose tasks range from office management to event planning to presentation creation, whose boss, like them, may be a male or a female, and whose colleagues account for 476,000 of Canada’s workforce.

What’s so wrong with “secretary”?

Ever since their occupation exploded in the early twentieth century, secretaries have been vital to the prosperity of organizations. Back then, the “secretary” was responsible primarily for keeping files organized, taking dictations, and conveying information from one individual to another with accuracy. As the decades went by, the title of “administrative assistant” became more prominent. Not that the term “secretary” is inherently derogatory as some may think. Derived from the Latin word “secretum”, meaning to distinguish or set apart (which is also where we get the word “secret” among others), the title of secretary dates back to the Renaissance. Back then, “secretaries” referred to confidants and close advisors of powerful figures, including monarchs. Only in recent decades has the term “administrative assistant” become the “politically correct” alternative to “secretary”, having been pushed in North America by administrative professional associations since the 1940s and 1950s. However, despite the success of this push, “secretary” is a term still used in a number of prestigious titles – think “Secretary of State” in the US or “Secretary-General” in the UN.

Evolution of the administrative assistant

The job itself, not just its name, has changed in time as well, particularly over the past 20 to 30 years with the arrival of personal computers and, later on, the internet. Once everyone in the office had their own computer at their desk, taking dictation and storing piles of folders started to go the way of the dodo. Fast forward little more than a decade later, and everyone in the workplace was typing up their own letters and sending them at the speed of light without using a shred of paper.

Despite these technological invasions on their territory, administrative assistants did not go extinct. Rather, like any strong and resourceful group, they adapted. In fact, they have even become technology experts in many offices. According to the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), 60% of administrative assistants around the world are responsible for purchasing office software and training their coworkers on how to use it. Some have even become their offices’ first stop in repairing broken equipment or solving software conundrums. Free from many of the monotonous duties of the past, thanks in part to technology, the duties of an administrative assistant have expanded in many other ways, too. Their tasks now include internet research, mastering Microsoft Office and other programs, planning large company events, budgeting, customer service, designing collateral, and drafting – rather than taking the dictation of – their supervisors’ communications.

These additional, more cerebral tasks require a more intellectual education and can open doors to positions higher up the corporate ladder, especially since the role has become more about team support rather than individual support, allowing more people to take notice. Gone are the days of coming out of high school, honing your typing skills, walking into an office, and starting right away. Most administrative assistants now require a bachelor’s degree and should expect rigorous interviews and aptitude tests meant to evaluate their people, organizational, problem-solving, and computer skills. In fact, many administrative assistants say that it’s the variety and challenge the profession now offers that makes being an administrative assistant so appealing.

The administrative assistant of tomorrow

New technology didn’t just change the role of the administrative assistant within the office; it brought the role outside of the office, too – and not just because many administrative assistants are now equipped with smartphones. In fact, the business of the “virtual administrative assistant” has been on the rise for several years now. The term may elicit images of those uncanny Japanese androids you see on the news or just a CD with “easy to use” tattooed all over the packaging, but virtual administrative assistants or secretaries are real people working for themselves and offering a number of outsourced services that include traditional administrative assistant responsibilities, such as scheduling meetings, creating presentations, booking travel arrangements, maintaining databases, and more. But many virtual administrative assistant services have expanded into a range of other fields, too, including general marketing, website design, and social media management.

Some say the virtual administrative assistant is the administrative assistant of the future, able to work remotely for several organizations at the same time, streamlining operations, and reducing overhead because typically they’re paid an hourly wage only for the work that they’re asked to do. However, this solution tends to work best only for small and medium sized businesses. As with any outsourced service, there are sacrifices involved, including valuable in-person contact and security of information, including passwords and confidential files. So, for now, larger businesses continue to see the benefit of having a full-time or temporary administrative assistant working next to everyone else right in the office. And if figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (which projects the field to grow 5.8% in America by 2020) and IAAP (which projects an 8.5% increase there by 2016) are any indication, the administrative assistant will remain a fixture in offices for a long time to come, ever adapting, ever flourishing.

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