Personal assistant

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Alice, 45

What does a personal assistant do?

Alice's passion for her job is clear. "If you're a right-hand person to somebody and therefore caring about the quality of the work that person produces, you couldn't do it at arm's length. You're not just stuffing envelopes!" And commitment to what the boss stands for is crucial. "In my position, supporting a senior person, much of what you do is about the ideological agenda that we're attempting to work with in society." This is true whether you're working in government, business or community organisations, she says.

How did you become a personal assistant?

Alice temped in corporations and worked in community and non-government organisations when she finished her training. With a visual arts background, she realised she needed some money-making skills, and decided administration would be useful. "I set out with the idea that I would work somewhere where I was able to work with issues that interest me." She did a six-month course at a secretarial college, a "funny, archaic place" which insisted they use typewriters instead of computers, and banned women from wearing pants. She says TAFE courses are more practical and better value for money.

What does a typical day involve?

Alice 's job is to make life easier for her boss, the secretary of Australia's peak union body. "[My boss is] working at this furious pace all the time and [she needs me] to be able to say, 'Sure, I can do that, how about this, let me take this on,' and not to let on to her how barmy I'm going!", she says. Alice spends a lot of time using computers and the phone, organising - and reorganising - her boss's diary, scheduling meetings, and dealing with inquiries. She also works with other staff, writes up notes for meetings, and keeps the filing systems orderly.

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

You need to be multi-talented: "You need a few good skills to support what you do - typing, finding your way around software packages - because that will save you time." But Alice is adamant that while organisation, time management and tidiness are useful, other skills are more important. She lists maturity, commonsense and resilience, plus calmness under pressure, and most of all, flexibility - though, as a perfectionist, Alice sometimes finds this hard. "It's taken me a long time to realise that I'm not always going to be able to dot all the I's and cross all the T's."

You also need to work independently: "People aren't always around to answer your questions." Alice is grateful she can work well with other people, and counts diplomacy as an important ingredient in the job. And PAs need to know about issues affecting their employers. "It would be pretty impossible to survive in my job if you hadn't read the newspaper. You don't have to be an expert but you need to know the basics and the relevant people [involved]." And dedication is more important than a pristine desk and an organised calendar. "I feel as if I'm poorly organised, drowning in bits of paper, and forgetful. But I'm very prepared to work hard."

What are some of the pros and cons of the job?

This is lucky, in an organisation with limited resources and high expectations: while generally she works office hours, 45-hour weeks happen occasionally. "You might not be prepared to stay until 7.30 pm four nights in one week if you were working for the minimum wage," Alice chuckles, but she's happy to support her organisation by putting in extra time on big campaigns, for example. The work can be frustrating and repetitive, but working with such energetic and dedicated people inspires her.

Alice's advice is to make sure you believe in the organisation you're working for. "You have to see yourself as really a cog in that machine."

Find out more

Visit the MyFuture website to find more about duties and tasks, work conditions, earnings and required qualifications for a career as an office professional.

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).