Your assistant career: was it one of choice, or circumstance?

The results of my March 5, 2021 Weekend Poll

I asked and, as always, readers stepped forward to voice your experiences and perspectives. With thanks to all who participated, here are the results.

Less than one in five envisioned a career as an assistant

Only 18% of respondents said you planned a career as an assistant when you were a student. I know some  assistants who were happily preparing for this career in their teens, and some of them even embarked on the career before their 18th birthdays. The remaining 82%, like me, had no such plans in those early days. 

Interestingly, while it may not have been on the radar for all of them, 38% of respondents reported that an assistant role was their first full time job. 

At what age did you become an assistant? More than a quarter of respondents, 27%, began their assistant careers before they turned 20. Another 31% began, like me, between the ages of 21 and 25.

While 78% of all respondents had found their way to the career by the age of 30, another 14% became assistants at some point between the ages of 31 and 40. I wonder about the extent, for those who are parents, to which children and their school schedules impacted the decision to enter the career during one’s 30s. As some readers will know, I left the career in my twenties to become a corporate trainer. When we moved to a smaller city, it wasn’t until both our kids were in school that I re-entered the career.

Another 8% of respondents reported becoming assistants for the first time after the age of 40. To me, this reflects the scope of opportunity in this career. While some may find it daunting to begin a new career between the ages of 40 and 55, just think of the life experience such individuals can bring to a role.

A healthy percentage have at least one post-secondary credential

It’s little wonder a healthy percentage of respondents weren’t in the career before their early to mid-twenties. For, while 47% of respondents did not attain a post-secondary credential before becoming assistants, 53% did carry on with their education before securing such roles. Almost a third, 30%, earned diplomas. Almost a third of those diplomas were specifically related to the assistant career; the balance were unrelated to the career yet were also likely highly relevant to an individual’s capacity to succeed in the role.

Twenty percent of respondents told me they’d earned a baccalaureate/undergraduate degree before embarking on the career, with one fifth of those credentials specifically related to the assistant career. Another 3% had earned graduate degrees before becoming assistants.

Most assistants engage in professional development and formal or informal learning throughout the career. I know from previous Weekend Polls that many of you have earned certificates. In this Poll, 40% of respondents told me you’ve pursued academic diplomas or degrees since becoming an assistant. In total, 15% of respondents have earned diplomas, while 9% have earned graduate degrees and 3% have earned a PhD or other post-graduate degree.  

Career longevity

Sixteen percent of respondents have been in the career less than 10 years, with another 28% having held such roles for between 11 and 20 years and 27% of respondents in the career between two and three decades. Hats off to the remaining 29%, who have honed their expertise for 31 years and longer.

Were you specifically seeking an assistant role when you secured your current role? That was the case for 71% of respondents, while another 12% didn’t have a firm career preference. Another 17% did not identify this as their career of choice when they landed their current jobs.

How assistants feel about this career generally, and how the pandemic has impacted perspectives

Whether or not it was initially a career of choice or circumstance, 55% percent of respondents said you’re satisfied with your decision to become an assistant. Another 40% feel this way most of the time, while 5% are not satisfied with their career choice. It was interesting, then, to see that 62% of respondents envision being assistants for the balance of their careers, while another 20% are not sure and a further 18% said “no”.

I wondered whether the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how people feel about their choice of  career, and so this was another question I posed. As with the majority of those in my Weekend Polls, this was a multiple choice question.  More than a third of respondents, 38%, said the pandemic has not impacted how they feel about the career, and that any career will have bumps and its share of ups and downs. 

It was interesting to see that another 36% said the positive impacts they’ve had on colleagues, stakeholders and employers during the pandemic have validated the belief that they’re in the right career. Another 9% said they remain generally satisfied with their career choices, yet this last year has been particularly tough.

For some, 7% of respondents, this last year has been particularly difficult and they’re considering whether another career may be more satisfying or rewarding. An additional 5% reported that assistant roles at their place of employment have been particularly vulnerable to layoffs, furloughs and/or termination of employment in the last year. Another 5% have moved beyond contemplating a move and are actively seeking a career change.

How those who didn’t plan to be in this career landed here

For the final question of this Weekend Poll, I invited those who didn’t originally envision this career to consider whether they’d like to open up and tell us just how they wound up here. Quite a few people took me up on the invitation, so you may want to nab a cup of tea, coffee or beverage of your choice. Make yourself comfortable, and soak up others’ career stories at the base of this page.

THE DATA

1.  When you were a student, did you envision becoming an assistant?

  • Yes: 18% of respondents
  • No: 82% of respondents  

2. Was an assistant role your first full time job?

  • Yes: 38% of respondents
  • No: 62% of respondents  

3. What was your age when you first became an assistant?

  • 20 or younger: 27% of respondents 
  • 21-25 years: 31% of respondents 
  • 26-30 years: 20% of respondents 
  • 31-35 years: 7% of respondents 
  • 36-40 years: 7% of respondents 
  • 41-45 years: 5% of respondents 
  • 46-50 years: 2% of respondents 
  • 51-55 years: 1% of respondents 
  • 56-60 years: 0% of respondents 

4. Did you secure a post-secondary credential before becoming an assistant?  

  • No: 47% of respondents
  • Yes; a diploma unrelated to the assistant career: 19% of respondents
  • Yes; a diploma specifically related to being an assistant: 11% of respondents  
  • Yes; an undergraduate degree unrelated to the assistant career: 16% of respondents
  • Yes; an undergraduate degree specifically related to the assistant career: 4% of respondents  
  • Yes; a graduate degree: 3% of respondents  

5. Have you secured a post-secondary credential since becoming an assistant?  

  • No: 60% of respondents
  • Yes; a diploma unrelated to the assistant career: 13% of respondents
  • Yes; a diploma specifically related to being an assistant: 11% of respondents  
  • Yes; an undergraduate degree unrelated to the assistant career: 4% of respondents
  • Yes; an undergraduate degree specifically related to the assistant career: 6% of respondents  
  • Yes; a graduate degree: 3% of respondents  
  • Yes; a post-graduate (PhD or other) degree: 3% of respondents  

6. How many years have you been an assistant?  

  • less than a year: 1% of respondents 
  • 1-2 years: 0% of respondents 
  • 2-5 years: 2% of respondents 
  • 6-10 years: 13% of respondents 
  • 11-15 years: 8% of respondents 
  • 16-20 years: 20% of respondents 
  • 21-25 years: 13% of respondents 
  • 26-30 years: 14% of respondents 
  • 31-35 years: 17% of respondents 
  • 36-40 years: 8% of respondents 
  • more than 40 years: 4% of respondents 

7. Was being an assistant your career of choice when you secured your current job?  

  • Yes: 71% of respondents 
  • No: 17% of respondents 
  • I didn’t have a firm career preference: 12% of respondents

8. Have your experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how you feel about your choice of career?  

  • No; any career will have bumps and its share of ups and downs: 38% of respondents 
  • Yes; the positive impacts I’ve had on my colleagues, stakeholders and employer during the pandemic have validated that I’m in the right career: 36% of respondents 
  • Yes; this last year has been particularly difficult and I’m considering whether another career may be more satisfying and/or rewarding: 7% of respondents 
  • Yes; assistant roles at my place of employment have been particularly vulnerable to layoffs, furloughs and/or termination of employment this last year: 5% of respondents 
  • Yes; I’m actively seeking a career change: 5% of respondents  
  • Yes and no; I remain generally satisfied with my career choice, yet this last year has been particularly tough: 9% of respondents  

9. Are you satisfied with your choice to become an assistant? 

  • Yes: 55% of respondents 
  • Most of the time: 40% of respondents 
  • No: 5% of respondents 

10. Do you envision being an assistant for the balance of your career? 

  • Yes: 62% of respondents 
  • No: 18% of respondents 
  • I’m not sure: 20% of respondents 

11. If you did not envision your career as an assistant in your early days, please briefly describe how you landed in the career. 

  • After graduation I did not start my career as an assistant, but I became one by chance and then it became a vocation. I have been lucky; I have worked in international contexts with enlightened managers. But precisely because I know that unfortunately this is not always the reality, I feel I can give back what I have received or rather what I have conquered. (I) give to others part of my experience, my knowledge to acquire awareness of our role and give it the right visibility.
  • I was studying law, which I was beginning to have doubts about. During a work placement within a law firm, I made my decision law wasn’t for me. I ended up securing an administration role with that firm and from there, with the exception of five years when I moved into account management, I’ve spent my entire working life building my career as an assistant and never looked back.
  • I planned to be an elementary/primary school teacher. In my sophomore year in college, teaching jobs in my region were at capacity and so I pursued a business degree instead. I am the daughter of an office manager (father) and secretary/bookkeeper (mother). The tradition continues as my three adult daughters have been/are admins in their own right. In 2006, thanks to technology and entering the Sandwich Generation, I left the corporate world and became a self-employed Virtual Assistant – a realistic and viable option when life requires you to place equal importance on personal and professional obligations. My charter clients are all former employers and we continue to partner to this day.
  • I was in the Royal Navy as an administrator and got posted into a role as PA to a Staff Legal Advisor (Naval Lawyer). This was due to my exceptional typing skills (RSA and Pittman’s qualified), as I was required to act as Court Recorder at Courts Martial and produce accurate transcripts which could be reviewed at the High Court in appeals. I was also required to be Recorder at Naval Boards of Inquiry, producing transcripts which could lead to criminal or civil prosecutions. I loved this job and organising my Lieutenant Commander, so I carried on in similar roles once I transferred to civvy street.
  • I didn’t plan to become one. My role evolved from Marketing Assistant with 10% EA duties to, after a month, being asked to be a full time EA. To be really honest, I didn’t even know what an Executive Assistant was until the CEO I worked for explained it. Turns out I loved the role and certainly made it my own. In a small startup, you are exposed to so many opportunities!  
  • My mother was a lecturer in Secretarial Duties at the same college where I was doing A levels back in the early 90s. Her early career was a PA in Fleet Street in the 60s back in the days of typing pools (she had many stories!). I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in doing her college course – even though she advised me to register to do it alongside A Levels, in order to at least learn to type properly! An assistant role has obviously progressed a long way since those days. Back then I never thought of it as a possible career path, but here I am and loving it … and I should have listened to mother and registered for her course all those years ago!
  • I certainly didn’t plan to be an assistant. I couldn’t continue my career in the hospitality industry and combine it with a young family, so I took a job as a secretary instead – and never looked back! 
  • I did not envision becoming an assistant but I had the honour to work with a great and inspiring leader who welcomed me on board as a new graduate in economics. This is the best way to learn and develop soft and hard skills with the full vision of a business partner (as we are today)  … and this happened to me 30 years ago!
  • I left a career as an elementary school teacher after 10 years, and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. Then the recession of 2008/2009 hit and it became more about simply securing any job. It took almost a full year, but I landed in a position as an assistant at a university, which means I still get to interact with students and faculty – without being in the classroom. It turned out to be the perfect place for me.
  • My first full time job was an admin role in the law courts, on a temp contract. One day, one of the local lawyers told me they were recruiting for a junior secretary role and I should apply. That started me on my current path.
  • I’d held extensive business support roles and a support role assisting the EA to an AD. I wanted to support at a senior level, though had to change employment in order to be taken seriously.
  • I took a voluntary redundancy from a 26-year career in banking before looking for another job. I found a part admin, part assistant role and over the last 7 years turned it into an executive assistant role full time.
  • I fell into the role.
  • When I graduated from high school, my parents paid for business college. Any further education after that would be at my own expense, but I found I quite enjoyed being an assistant and that I was quite good at it. After graduating from business college, I worked for Kelly Services for almost a year which gave me the opportunity to discover which type of work places I enjoyed working in and those that I didn’t.
  • My mother taught secretarial duties at the same college where I did my A levels. I dug my heels in and didn’t want to do a secretarial course along side A Levels. I went to uni and then to…Secretarial College and into corporate world. My secretarial course was invaluable and I wish I’d done it alongside A Levels. Mums know best … right!?
  • I started as a bookkeeper for six years, then spent 19 years in event management before being asked by a customer to be their PA 17 years ago.
  • After being home for 14 years with my children, it was the only job I could get.
  • I realised I was better at planning, organising, creating systems and building relationships than selling! I took advice and went to night school to learn shorthand, increase my typing speed, temped to learn more about the role before securing a full time position. Still learning after 35 years!
  • I finished my apprenticeship as a banker and started in the wealth management section of the bank. The usual starting point was as an assistant. In general I loved it. People underestimate the position and it’s the best short cut into a company you might like to work for, but would face a tough competition for other roles. Plus you get so many insights and a strong network, so that switching roles is easier.
  • I didn’t really have a career direction and started in admin roles. After my role was made redundant, I became an Executive Assistant to a CEO because I had built up a wide experience base. Technology has made it easier to follow this route than years ago.
  • I applied for admin roles because that seemed to be what I was good at.
  • After returning from maternity leave, I started to temp as an assistant, because the work schedule at my previous job in a hotel would not have been compatible with the child care options I had.​ 
  • I did many secretarial roles and becoming an assistant was a natural progression that I just fell into.
  • I took a job to get some secretarial experience whilst looking for graduate jobs, yet ended up moving very quickly into a PA role and the rest is history.
  • I was working as an Accounts Payable Clerk and the CFO asked me to be his Assistant, due to my soft skills, results-oriented, structured approach to work and growth mindset.
  • Having moved to a foreign country, I couldn’t pursue my career in the hospitality industry because of language difficulties, and combining unsocial hours with a young family. So I looked for an office role and found a company looking for a fluent English speaker. It was serendipity!
  • My role as an assistant has taken turns over the years. Project management has been part of all my assistant roles, and recently I have been expanding this portion of my role. I see this becoming my primary function in the near future.
  • I started off with a postgraduate diploma in arts management, fully intending to be a general manager of a theatre. After five years as a junior admin in the arts sector, I thought I needed a change and took a temp role as a PA in a charity.  I secured that role as I had experience with charity governance. I found I loved the variety of the PA role and working really closely with one individual. No regrets.
  • It’s what was available at the time and I needed the money. Secondly, at the time and in the country, gender bias was widespread and even accepted. Thirdly, since my studies were in modern languages and English in particular, it was the sort of choice that complemented and gave me an edge to secure well paid assistant jobs.
  • It was a case of just being in the right place at the right time.
  • It is a result of choices made in other areas of my life. I had no choice but to work, and this I could do!
  • I was a library tech in my company’s business library. When the library closed, I was offered the admin job.
  • The opportunity opened up and I thought, why not?
  • I was a receptionist/administration assistant in my first job out of school. When it was time to look for something else, I applied and was successful in a jobs entitled, “‘Secretary to …”, which comprised personal assistant and wider departmental administration work. I am still at the same employer but have changed jobs, more towards the assistant role.
  • I wanted to become a teacher but I was too shy and was lacking self confidence. Plus I needed to secure a job as quickly as possible.
  • I started as a part time receptionist when our son was born. The role became full time, and then I was promoted to AA in HR.
  • I was an award winning salesperson with an entrepreneurial background. I was recruited to support the top five FAs in a Global 300 firm and quickly moved through the ranks in my administrative career to the highest levels for an EA. For many years, I have worked in dual roles as an EA and in some form of a management role.
  • I started my career as an assistant when I moved to the United Arab Emirates from the Philippines. Back in 2008, one of the more in-demand jobs for female Filipinos was to become part of the admin team of organizations (i.e. receptionist, secretary, document controller). I came from a banking background but, at that time, the world was already in the throes of a recession so it was difficult to continue my banking career in a different country. Getting into an admin support role was relatively easier and the skills required for the role were similar to the skills I have acquired working in previous fields.
  • I graduated with a hospitality degree and relocated for an Assistant Manager role at a 12-screen multiplex cinema. The role was made redundant 10 months later, and I needed a temp job to pay the bills while job searching. I fell into my first admin role, as it was temporary. I loved having my weekends and evenings back, and enjoyed the role, so decided to purse my admin career instead. However, I found my hospitality degree and skills have been easy to transfer and super useful.
  • Pure luck! I had a job that I did not like, saw an ad for an assistant position and applied for it. I got the job and I love it!
  • I’d been working in accounting for over a decade and needed a break. I didn’t know/understand what an assistant was, and thought the role wouldn’t be as taxing and would be more fun/varied.
  • In the beginning, I needed a job where I could remain local as I was my mother’s carer. The majority of jobs being advertised were for office support/secretary, etc., so that’s what I did. Some roles also required a certificate, so I then went to college.
  • I knew I wanted to work full time for a specific organization. When full time positions opened, I applied for them. I interviewed for two other full time roles, one in marketing and one in advising. When I was offered a full time position as an administrative specialist, I accepted the job. Since then, I have earned one promotion. I would like to continue moving up, but I will have to move laterally to continue progressing.
  • I left a role as a trainee bank manager and wanted to use my languages again so decided to take the RSA Higher Diploma in Administrative and Secretarial Procedures with French. I got a role just as I graduated, and I’ve never looked back!
  • I started my PA career completely by chance. I left school and worked in a bank but left after six years due to the pressure to sell. My friend worked for a cable company and they were looking for a temporary PA. I turned up with no training or qualifications and fell in love with the job straight away. That was 27 years ago.
  • Being an assistant is the best role to see and manage and have full vision of an organisation.
  • I entered the career after the loss of a parent, as I had to help my mother raise my younger sibling. Sometimes life take you where you are supposed to be. I would do it again, but my choice of career was brain surgeon!
  • I completed a diploma qualifying me for international telesales. While reviewing next steps/role options, I took a three-month temp contract role as an assistant. I discovered this was my niche!
  • I fell into it. I was in the car business for years, then took time off to take care of an ill family member. When it was time to go back to work, I knew that I did not want nights or weekends all the time. I had done office work while I was in college and enjoyed it. I went through a temp agency, got hired on full time and the rest is history. While I would like a title change at some point in time, one more encompassing of what I can do, I am happy with the basics of my job  and only want to grow. I know that I am my CEO’s right hand, and that is an honor.
  • My role in a finance/accounts payable career path was made redundant. As I had helped out with admin, I was taken on by a friend who knew my abilities
  • Translating is my vocation. I found a job as a translator when I was 20. Back then it meant working long hours with a Collins dictionary and a typewriter in a dark room all by myself. It was boooooring. The CEO liked my translations and my language skills. He fired his PA and hired me in her place. I had some experience as a receptionist, I was good on the phone and had a strong personality. PA jobs were rich and varied … and much better paid than translators.
  • I became an assistant by chance. I sent my CV to a company for another position; they called me for an assistant opportunity, and I was chosen for the role.
  • I was working in the insurance business as a benefit correspondent, but I wanted to do something else. I met some headhunters through a new friend, who talked me into applying for a position with a trade association as an Administrative Assistant. The role paid about $3,000 more per year, and included more leave, and travel. Candidates had to have a college degree, which I did have – in liberal arts. 
  • I knew I would be good at it after working part time in the customer service department at a local store during my teenage years. I just didn’t realize at the time what a fabulous career it would be!

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