Name: Misty O.
Job Title: Administrative Assistant
Years of Experience: 8
Where: Seattle, WA
Current Employer: I am currently unemployed, in part because I am in the process of changing careers.
Other Relevant Work Experience: Temped as a legal assistant at two law firms.
Education: University of Washington, BA, Communications/Advertising emphasis
Salary: See the PayScale Research Center for median administrative assistant salaries.
Administrative Assistant Job Description
As long as there’s an office, there will be a need for administrative assistants. In this administrative assistant job description, Misty explains why she chose this position and how to best succeed in it. She explains that, due to salary considerations, it can be beneficial to gain initial experience at a small company and then find the right larger firm to stay with for the long-term. Misty also describes her administrative assistant job duties as well as challenges faced on the job. Learn why this can be a rewarding position, and get practical advice from an experienced administrative assistant.
PayScale: What are your administrative assistant job duties?
Front desk operations, phones, calendar management, conference room management, and assistance to sales reps and other top company executives are some of the common job duties. The job can be quite varied and administrative assistants exist across many different industries. Each job is generally specific to the company’s line of work, although there are some standard activities you’ll find in any admin assistant job. In addition to greeting clients and handling phones and messages, there is typically computer data entry, hard-copy document filing, faxing and copying, and often being in charge of the copy and fax machines – making sure they are loaded with paper, calling the technicians when they need fixing, that sort of thing. Mail distribution and invoicing can be part of this position as well. Organization and efficiency are important, since the admin assistant is often the go-to person that everyone needs something from ASAP, and strong multi-tasking skills are also essential. Computer application skills, especially MS Office Suite are typically required and also typing ability anywhere between 30 to 60 wpm, depending on the job. This position is often the front lines of the company and it can be the place where any customer satisfaction issues (or in-house operations inefficiencies) first become apparent. Communications with customers, clients, suppliers and other business professionals is very common and can involve in-person, telephone or written communication skills. Problem-solving and remaining calm in a chaotic environment is necessary, and handling angry people with finesse and professionalism is required.
PayScale: How did you get started as an administrative assistant?
I got started in this line of work originally because it was the first job I was hired for after college and I was motivated to put my degree in communications to work. At first I was very excited and motivated by the nature of the work and had the attitude that just getting my foot in the door was the most important thing, but then I discovered that the place I was working for did not really have any advancement opportunities that were of interest to me. So I continued on to other admin assistant jobs because one thing that has always motivated me about this line of work is that a good admin assistant is worth their weight in gold, since a lot of significant mistakes can either be made, avoided, or corrected depending on your level of attention to detail, and these details can have a big impact on a company’s success. I enjoy a high attention to detail and I enjoy working in a position where I know all the ducks are in a row, so to speak. One area that can be a very good advancement opportunity in this line of work is to become an executive assistant. Once you work your way up to that position, it can be very well-paying and involve travel, prestige, and other perks. So I was motivated to pursue that track also.
PayScale: What do you love about your administrative assistant job?
I love the variety. There are usually a lot of different projects to keep track of and the day goes by quickly with all the various tasks. I also enjoy the fact that there is a fair amount of autonomy in the job. You are generally expected to just get everything done that needs doing, and usually people are busy with their own jobs and not riding you about yours (as long as you are doing the job well). I enjoy the customer and co-worker interaction because I truly enjoy giving excellent customer service and being of assistance to people. I am a naturally cheerful, happy, outgoing and pro-active person and a stickler for details and doing things ‘right’. To me, ‘right’ means fixing obvious problems, especially the easy ones that don’t cost anything to fix. As such, I actually have to give an opposite answer to the question asked, because I learned over time that the little incidences that added up day after day were demonstrating to me that I was not really happy in this line of work. I anticipate problems and correct them before they are problems, but I found that as an admin assistant, I was often ‘shut down’ and told to “not worry” about those details. Then, sure enough, a short time down the road all the problems that I anticipated were facing the company (often with massive more work for me). So many of these obstacles were avoidable, foreseeable, and fixable. It drove me nuts that no one really cared to be bothered with it in advance. I really don’t have a lot of stories that proved to me that I loved being an administrative assistant and I have several that proved to me that I was better suited for more intellectual, strategic type work. Still, I have to say that the skills and experience I gained as an admin assistant are invaluable and definitely transferable to the next leap in my career.
PayScale: What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?
Some of the challenges I already mentioned above in the previous answer, such as a lack of empowerment to fix problems that are beyond the scope of your daily tasks. Another big challenge is all the paper filing that goes into the file cabinets. Not because it is difficult to sort and file properly, nor because there is so much of it, but because ALL offices insist on having the file cabinets sit on the floor, which means that to file anything in the two bottom drawers (of a typical four-drawer file cabinet) you must constantly bend over in a very bad posture that can injure your back or else you must get on your knees – which is also not very comfortable and not that great when you are dressed nicely, as many offices require. An easy fix for this challenge is to have all the file cabinets raised up on wood blocks. That way, the two bottom drawers are at normal reaching height and you just use a little rolling step ladder to reach the upper drawers. This is a much better way to file, but good luck getting any office to change. They don’t have to change because THEY don’t do the filing! So that is one big challenge of being an admin assistant, the physical ergonomic difficulties of filing.
Another challenge is when the computer systems are slow, down, outdated, crashing, or otherwise hindering your ability to do your job. Obviously this is a challenge for everyone in any office position, however, the admin assistant has a lot of work to do that needs to get done daily. There just simply isn’t any way to get the job done on time and keep up on everything if the computers aren’t working properly and this can be very stressful. To make matters worse, the IT person often doesn’t consider the admin assistant a high priority, so it might be a while before the problem is resolved. One final note: in general, admin assistant work is simply not that mentally challenging (after the initial learning curve), which can be one of the biggest challenges of all.
PayScale: What advice would you give to someone who wants to work as an administrative assistant?
For people who want to really make a career of being an admin assistant, I would highly encourage candidates to try and find companies that they might want to stay and grow with over time, because that is how you will make money. Every time you start a new admin assistant job, you start at an entry-level wage, so building equity within a company is a much better strategy. This means finding a big enough company and/or one in an industry that is interesting enough to stick with. I would advise young people who want to get a jump-start in the business world to gain experience in this line of work, particularly if you do not yet have a college degree or maybe are not planning to attend college. While a degree is generally preferred by employers for this position, there are certainly ways to become an admin assistant without a degree. For example, if you or your family knows someone who has a chiropractic office or some other small office, you can offer to work part-time there to get a start. Once you get a little experience as an admin assistant, you can get more admin assistant jobs without necessarily having to have a lot of college.
Advice that I wish I had been given includes: I wish I had been encouraged to tap into this type of work right out of high school or in my first years of college instead of all the restaurants I worked in! It would have helped me to be more focused in my professional career goals and it also is typically higher paying than being a food server (though not always). I also wish I had been advised later on to go with larger companies once I was seeking professional positions. I always seemed to get hired in small companies and that can have limitations for growth and for employee dynamics. By that, I mean that offices can be very cliquish. That can be fun if you are in the clique, and it can be rough if you’re not. A bigger company offers more people to network with and to find your own niche camaraderie.
PayScale: Do you recall any crazy moments from your administrative assistant job?
One job I had was working for a company that performed market research surveys for radio stations. The outcomes of those surveys contributed to determining radio station formats and play lists. That was a fun place to work because musical artists would often come through our office for meet-and-greets and to play music for us, promoting themselves with the hopes that we would promote them to radio stations. This was actually rather funny, since we really had no influence personally in what radio stations decided to play or what formats they chose to be. What determined that was the outcome of the large, public music surveys we created and administered, not who impressed us because they came to visit. Another interesting thing that happened once was, during my first or second week on the job, the WTO protests in Seattle were going on, right down the street that our office was on. We could look down from our office tower and watch all the action (which at that time and location was still peaceful), although since it was my first or second week on the job, I was not able to participate if I had wanted to. But it made a pretty exciting work atmosphere that week.
Another aspect that was interesting in my admin assistant career was the wide range of industries there are to work in. Every time I got a new admin assistant job, it was in a different industry. So I gained a lot of exposure to the world of business and insight into several different types of businesses. Another crazy time was when the entire office decided it was OK to have strawberry daiquiris during the work day. I highly recommend NOT doing this! It was pretty funny but it was also a fairly dysfunctional work day, and we were still actually trying to get work done at the time. That experiment was a bit of a failure and definitely if you are the one answering the company’s phones, I highly advise staying away from free daiquiris at work, even if everyone else is doing it!