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The AMC TV series "Mad Men" provides a fairly accurate picture of secretaries in the 1960s. Movie buffs might also remember "9 to 5" with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda, "Working Girl" with Melanie Griffith, and "Erin Brockovich" with Julia Roberts, movies that show the hardworking and oppressed secretary overcoming overwhelming odds to end up a winner. The top profession for women in 1950 was -- and, 60+ years later, still is -- secretary (bls.gov/ooh 2012). In the 1970s, the feminist movement pushed for a change in career title from "secretary" to "administrative assistant," although job titles such as executive secretary or legal secretary still survive today.
A secretary by any other name …
No matter which term you use, today's secretary or administrative assistant generally has a finger on the pulse of the organization. The basis for the word secretary is "secret." In most industries, secretaries are often the second or third person in the company to know what's going on because they handle confidential communications. They are expected to have good judgment and awesome time-management and people skills. In addition to word processing expertise, they may have to know various spreadsheet, database, publishing and resource-planning software programs. Those in a specialized industry need to know the software programs and information specific to that industry. And, in their spare time, they often act as travel agents, personal shoppers, confidantes, gatekeepers and human PDAs for management. "Secretary" gives new meaning to Jack (or Jill) of all trades.
If you like variety, a secretary or administrative assistant's tasks can be different from hour to hour. In addition to routine document preparation and distribution of letters, memos, reports, invoices and financial statements, secretaries/administrative assistants are often called upon to do research and compile data for reports presented to executive committees and boards of directors.
Secretary colleges and programs
Although there is generally no postsecondary educational requirement for entry-level secretarial positions, some employers prefer to hire graduates with a vocational certificate or diploma, associate degree or even a bachelor's degree.
A variety of campus and online secretary programs at community colleges or vocational and technical schools provide the education necessary to pursue a secretarial career. Certificates and diplomas can take from three or four months to a year to complete, associate degrees generally take two years if you're attending full time, and a bachelor's degree typically requires at least four years.
General certificate and diploma programs can include classes in word processing, keyboarding and business correspondence, business math and accounting, customer service strategies, office procedure and management, and Microsoft Word, Access, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. Associate and bachelor's degree programs may include general educational courses in addition to business-specific classes such as business writing, business law, marketing strategies, and organizational behavior.
Programs for medical secretaries can include courses in medical terminology, transcription and information systems management, insurance coding and billing, medical specialties, medical ethics, and legal issues. Course work for aspiring legal secretaries or legal assistants can include various types of law -- criminal, family and probate, technical and business writing, legal documents and contracts, legal software applications, American government and jurisprudence, and legal ethics.
Secretarial school: a strategic career choice
One budget-conscious career strategy is to obtain the certificate or diploma necessary for an entry-level secretary or administrative position in your field of interest and continue your education while you are earning a salary. Advancement is generally based on a combination of experience, training and education. And, the general skills you learn as a secretary or administrative assistant are transferable to almost any public or private industry sector.
U.S. Department of Labor, "20 Leading Occupations of Employed Women," 2010 Annual Averages, Women's Bureau, http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/20lead2010.htm
Rochester Community and Technical College, Curriculum Course Descriptions, January 4, 2013, http://www.rctc.edu/catalog/courses/
O*Net OnLine, "Summary Report for Executive Secretaries and Executive Administrative Assistants," http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/43-6011.00
O*Net OnLine, "Summary Report for Legal Secretaries," http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/43-6012.00
O*Net OnLine, "Summary Report for Medical Secretaries," http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/43-6013.00
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Secretaries and Administrative assistants," U.S. Department of Labor, Office and Administrative Support, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2012-13 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/secretaries-and-administrative-assistants.htm#tab-1
West Virginia Northern Community College, "Programs of Study: Executive Administrative Assistant A.A.S.," 2013, http://www.wvncc.edu/programs-of-study/executive-administrative-assistant-a.a.s./22
Legal Secretaries International Inc., "Proud to be a Legal Secretary," Carol Ann Wilson, http://www.legalsecretaries.org/articles/proud.html
O*Net OnLine, "Summary Report for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive," http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/43-6014.00
Kay Easton graduated from the State University of New York with a BA in English Literature. As a freelance and technical writer with more than 20 years experience, she writes articles for the Internet on a variety of topics.