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Expanded role Administrative assistants' reach has grown

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While the history of several professions such as the legal and medical fields is well known and documented, the history of the administrative assistants and/or secretarial profession is much more obscure.

We do know that throughout history, there have always been specially designated individuals who've acted as confidants, advisers or scribes to those who held political or military power, wealth and/or were part of the nobility. We also know that capturing important conversations through writing and communicating and relaying this information accurately have all played a key role in history. Writing as a communication tool evolved from stones and chisels to parchment and quill pens alongside the invention of various forms of early Greek, Chinese, Japanese and European shorthand, which added substantial speed to the task of writing.

Following the historical development of male/female roles in society, we also find that the role of confidant, adviser and scribe was also typically male dominated. These individuals were well educated, often spoke and wrote several languages and were known for exemplary penmanship. Over time, the role continued to gain an elevated status as "private" or "personal" secretary with duties expanding to include general clerical and secretarial duties, filing and managing accounts.

As the role of secretaries expanded, so too did the world of shorthand grow and evolve. The first widely used American shorthand was invented by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837, while Gregg shorthand was invented in 1888. During these historical evolutions of secretarial services and work tools, more and more women joined the ranks of professional secretaries. This in turn created the demand for secretarial schools that offered extensive administrative skill curriculums and courses on mastering shorthand. By the early 1900s, demand for secretaries soared to such an extent that women began to dominate the field.

Then, in the mid-1940s, the U.S. National Secretaries Association was formed, with Canada following suit in 1951. The goal of this association was to establish national standards for secretarial credentials, to rename the profession to administrative assistant, to provide advanced education and to provide opportunities for the exchange of ideas through membership meetings and events. One of the first initiatives after their inaugural meeting was to initiate a three-year distance education course through the University of Toronto, which then entitled graduates to use the designated letters, QAA.

So, where is the profession of administrative assistants today? What skills do these professionals require? These professionals don't just transcribe or type correspondence anymore, they often write the initial draft correspondence! Taking their independence a step further, if the correspondence is quite standard, they can also apply a manager's electronic signature and send the document on its way. As well, administrative assistants are now proofing and completing manager's first drafts prior to forwarding a document.

Administrative assistants today typically have many more general duties such as complete office management, customer service, meeting and event planning, co-ordinating the appointment calendars of several managers, conducting general research and creating company presentations.

They often act as the liaison with vendors as they may handle the purchasing of office supplies, and co-ordinate with technology, maintenance and building service providers. Today, they may also manage customer contact databases, use multiple spreadsheets, co-ordinate and develop company newsletters, orient new employees, and supervise other administrative staff. In smaller organizations, administrative assistants might also act as the co-ordinator and initial contract for company employee benefit plans.

As a result, the profession is experiencing an expansion of professional titles, increased recognition for their contributions and increases in compensation. Today, you can find titles such as office co-ordinator, office administrator, office manager, administrative specialist, executive assistant, secretary and administrative assistant. Pay ranges have also increased as the value of their input becomes more and more appreciated.

Education and skill remain key requirements for success in this profession. For instance, many individuals entering the profession now have undergraduate degrees. In addition, these professionals need to have significant computer literacy skills, with expertise in several office software programs as well as database management, Internet research and the ability to update websites. Many also need to be proficient in sophisticated software programs such as desktop publishing and the ability to create comprehensive PowerPoint presentations.

Administrative assistants need to be proactive and anticipate the needs of their immediate managers. Not only that, they often need to be diplomatic as they also have the role of reminding their manager of appointments and/or deadline dates. They also need to be exceptionally well organized and are often responsible for setting up and maintaining the electronic office filing system. I'm certain there is many a time when a manager can't locate an important document and is compelled to call upon their administrative assistant for help.

Customer service remains a key skill requirement as administrative assistants now typically manage and co-ordinate customer contacts through multiple sources such as face-to-face encounters as well as regular mail, telephone, email, company websites, and a variety of social networking sites.

This year, the International Association of Administrative Professionals is celebrating its 70th birthday in the United States and its 50th in Winnipeg. The association boasts of 600 chapters in 66 countries with approximately 40,000 members. Our local Winnipeg chapter is very active and will be hosting an Administrative Professionals Day event and anniversary celebration at the Winnipeg Convention Centre on Friday, April 27, at 7:30 a.m.

Being recognized and considered a professional is both a privilege and a responsibility. Professionals are also committed to continuous learning and self-development. They avoid conflicts of interest, keep confidences and are always respectful of others. And, as professionals, they enjoy the benefits of membership in an association that works hard on their behalf to ensure professional standards are maintained and upgraded as times change.

Some of the benefits of being a member of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) include an opportunity for professional designation, attendance at local monthly meetings, opportunities for networking and developing professional friendships, ongoing professional development, national and international conferences, and linkages with a network of colleagues, trainers, experts and manager who can provide new insights into trends and challenges. In addition, members receive copies of the association magazine, chapter newsletters and local leadership opportunities.

For those administrative assistants who want to join this professional association and/or attend this upcoming event, please email Susan Mar, the local Winnipeg association president at For those in management who rely on our administrative assistants for professional excellence, don't forget to celebrate International Administrative Professionals Day.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 H1

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