Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

The secretary is dead. Long live the PA

A secretary used to be a status symbol, a bit like the company car or an office on the executive floor, they were reserved for the favoured few.

A secretary used to be a status symbol, a bit like the company car or an office on the executive floor, they were reserved for the favoured few.

Luckily for both sides however, technology has broken down the need for perfect touch-typing to be the pinnacle of ambition and the secretaryís role has more often than not morphed into the altogether meatier proposition of a Personal Assistant or PA.

ìA good PA is a professional in their own right and can expect to earn a middle-management salary,î according to Cameron Lindsay, Associate Director of Office Services at leading recruitment consultancy, Search.

ìThe difference between a secretary and a PA is vast, in terms of the expectations of both employer and candidate, so recruiters confuse the two at their peril. ì

ìTo put it in crude terms, a secretary should be able to competently take a message for the manager she supports. In contrast, a PA should take the initiative to resolve the issue, carrying out further investigation or delegating responsibility within much wider boundaries.î

ìVery often they will also assume a project management role; keeping their superior informed but taking decisions daily to see projects through to completion with a minimum of supervision.î

Cameron says, ìI canít actually remember the last time Search was asked to supply a candidate with shorthand skills, but the ability for a PA to personally keep the home fires burning for a busy executive working out of the office is par for the course.î

As a result, while secretariesí salaries have not progressed significantly over the last decade, a good Scottish PA can expect to earn between 18k - 35k, according to Cameron. Not only is this on a par with London rates but itís similar to the remuneration of a marketing or HR manager.

Itís also not uncommon for the PA to progress onto a management role in their own right. Office or facilities management is a common progression, but some also build successful careers in event or project management as a result of the skills and contacts they have amassed.

ìA good PA will command the respect of her boss and her peers and very often things would fall apart far more quickly if the PA falls sick than the member of the executive team. Itís the old multi-tasking thing; PAís juggle responsibilities effortlessly and take a huge pressure off of the individuals or teams they supportî according to Cameron.

This increase in status means that there are an increasing number of male PAís on the circuit, but the job remains overwhelmingly dominated by women.

Yet if power is an issue, the facts are that, through the nature of the role, the PA will often be privy to confidential information before Directors and senior managers.

Not only are they gatekeepers to the highest echelons of the business but contractors also know that the chance to get a foot in the door depends not on an executive they have yet to meet, but on the PA whom they have first to impress.

ìThere is no one qualification which unites PAs, and good secretarial skills are largely taken for granted. Itís more the personal characteristics which will propel someone to the top of their profession - and make no mistake, good PAs are headhunted as much as any other managerî Cameron says.

ìSome PAs will add to their CVs by taking additional qualifications in design or publishing, accounts management or even languages, but itís the sheer force of character to stand up to Executive egos and to keep their heads while chaos reigns around them that separates the wheat from the chaff.

ìThe market for good PAs is extremely healthy and looks likely to continue to grow as managers continue to take on broader and broader roles.

ìWhen managers admit they couldnít do their jobs without their PA to back them up, they are not being coy or flattering. In our experience at Search, they are being entirely truthful. And their PAs know it too.î