Judith Yannarelli studied English Language and Literature and began working as a Secretary in 1962, since then taking positions as Executive Secretary, Administrative Assistant and Office Manager. Over the years, she was appointed International Treasurer, International Vice-President and President-elect with International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), becoming its Board President in July 2013.
Maria Joao Borges (MJB): In Portugal, a higher education degree in this area has been offered since 1962. However it seems that less and less people choose this career as a 1st option, even though there are lots of employment opportunities. Is there a similar trend in the United States of America?
Judith Yannarelli (JY): For a certain and significant group of people, being an administrative professional is a good fit for their talents and preferences. Many of these people enter the workforce knowing that they want to make this a career. You also have people who enter this career as a back-up plan. Often, they discover that they really enjoy it, are good at it and find it rewarding. This happens more often during economic downturns, like our recent recession. I think, particularly among younger people, there are a lot of misperceptions about this profession. When they actually take a job as an administrative professional, they discover that they are integral and well-respected members of their office teams.
MJB: Initially a profession undertaken only by men, positions are now mostly filled by women. Can you estimate a distribution between men and women in the USA?
JY: Both government data and IAAP’s own data show that about 95 percent of the members of this profession are female. Women have dominated the profession since the 1950s. We see some evidence that that’s changing. I encounter more men at our events than in the past. I think attitudes are changing. Nursing used to be seen as strictly women’s work in the U.S. until about 20 years ago. These days, nobody blinks when they have a male nurse. I think more men are open to becoming administrative professionals. As an organization, that’s a trend IAAP welcomes. We think more diversity can only be good for the profession and for the companies that employ its members. We’ve put a lot of effort into becoming diverse and we’re a better organization as a result.
MJB: Is this a well rated profession in terms of the employment outlook for the next, say, 10 years?
JY: Absolutely! In terms of data, we know that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that the number of administrative professionals will increase about 12 percent from 2010 to 2020. So there are definitely more people entering this profession. I also think it’s interesting that, in IAAP’s 2013 Benchmarking Survey report, only eight percent of the respondents say they would choose to leave the profession. That says a lot about the value of this career.
MJB: Do recruiters and employers look for specific skills? Do they look for technical training or base their choice mostly in soft skills?
JY: Administrative professionals must have a mix of both soft and technical skills. On the one hand, they have to understand the intangibles of dealing with a wide variety of people and circumstances. That means knowing how to communicate, negotiate and sometimes placate, among many other so-called soft skills. I think it’s funny they’re called soft skills, because they’re actually really hard to master. On the other hand, technical tasks are becoming more important for administrative professionals. Again, I refer to IAAP’s benchmarking survey. Technical skills dominate the list of training needs. This includes technology applications, computer software applications, website/social media management and project management.
MJB: Do these professionals have to have a specific license or to be part of a trade union in the USA?
JY: No, administrative professionals are not required to be certified or join a union, unless those things are specified by their employer. However, IAAP has a certification program and we obviously believe there is a lot of value in getting certified. The Certified Administrative Professional certification has a rigorous set of requirements and attaining it proves that this is your career and not just a job. In some settings, getting your CAP can lead to pay raises and opportunities for promotion. In addition to our CAP certification, we also offer specialties in Organizational Management and Technology Applications. Again, these are both excellent ways to distinguish yourself as a professional in a competitive job market.
MJB: In Portugal, as in some other countries, there is a wide range of names for this profession, which often do not translate into levels of responsibility or autonomy. What is the situation in the USA?
JY: It’s true that, in the U.S., the term “administrative professional” covers a lot of job titles and many different responsibilities. In our benchmarking survey, we include executive assistant, administrative assistant, secretary, administrative secretary, executive secretary, office manager, business administrator and coordinator. At the upper end of the pay scale, you’ve got executive assistants and executive secretaries. Secretaries and administrative assistants tend to be more mid-level or entry-level in terms of salary. But the fact is that all administrative professionals, regardless of their titles, are expected to perform an impressive variety of tasks, and we know from our survey that their responsibilities have generally increased across all job titles over the last several years. “Juggling multiple priorities” is consistently cited as one of the biggest job challenges among all administrative professionals.
MJB: In some countries there is a (somewhat) vigorous debate about the name secretary vs assistant. Is that the case in the USA? Why?
JY: The number of administrative professionals with Job titles that include “secretary” started to decline in the 1970s. By the 1990s, they had become a minority of our membership, which is one of the reasons why we changed our name from Professional Secretaries International to the International Association of Administrative Professionals. It’s interesting that the number of administrative professionals with secretary in their job titles actually doubled from about seven to about 14 percent from 2009 to 2011, and increased again in 2013. It’s not really clear why that happened, other than perhaps some nostalgia driven by things like the TV show “Mad Men.” Our members do talk about this issue on occasion. Some are convinced that the secretary job title has been pretty much ruined by that the image you see in shows like “Mad Men.” Others insist that it doesn’t make any difference as long as secretaries aren’t demeaned or dismissed. That’s pretty much where we fall as an association. We work to make sure that all of our members, regardless of their titles, are treated with respect and as full professional members of their office teams. Whether you’re called a secretary or some other title, it shouldn’t make a difference.
MJB: How is the virtual dimension of the profession evolving in the USA? Do companies look for virtual assistants?
JY: Virtual employment is becoming increasingly important in the profession and IAAP is paying close attention to this trend. The portion of administrative professionals who telecommute has inched up, though it’s still only about 14 percent, according to our 2013 Benchmarking Survey. Of those, about 65 percent have made the transition to virtual work in the last five years. Anecdotally, IAAP is fielding more requests from administrative professionals who need guidance or training for virtual work. For employers, there are some real economic advantages to hiring a virtual assistant. They free up space in your brick-and-motor locations, for one thing. It’s cheaper and more environmentally-friendly. More companies are starting to recognize that it doesn’t really matter where their employees work, as long as they get results. There is a growing body of evidence that many people are more effective and efficient when they work from home. A 2012 survey by Microsoft found that working virtually makes employees more productive, happier and healthier. Those are results that will pay off in the long run. Even administrative professionals who work in a traditional office are often still working virtually because they collaborate with team members in different locations, sometimes around the world. IAAP has responded to these trends by doing things like adding training for cloud-based productivity tools like Prezi and SharePoint. In addition, we recently launched a new educational webinar series because we recognize that many administrative professionals don’t have the resources to access training at a specific time or place. IAAP knows that flexibility and adaptability are absolutely essential in the new, virtual workplace.
Thank you for this opportunity, Maria. The opportunity for world-wide administrative professionals to share ideas and information makes the profession stronger, as well as the individuals within it.
Maria João Borges
Docente das UC de Práticas de Secretariado e Assessoria