THEIR titles vary: executive assistant, administrative assistant, the syllable-clipped “admin,” the classic secretary. Whatever you call them, these professionals continue to keep offices running as technology and budget cuts reshape their roles.
These days, “assistants are expected to perform as managers,” said Melba J. Duncan, a former assistant who is president of the Duncan Group, a recruiting and training firm in New York that focuses on senior-level professional assistants. But assistants tend to have influence without authority, she added, and that can make their jobs tricky.
Tasks like planning meetings, managing calendars, sorting e-mails and routing calls require setting priorities and making decisions. Assistants must also synthesize large amounts of data and reading material for their bosses, Ms. Duncan said.
Good assistants are reactive and adaptable. “There’s always a surprise,” she said, “and that surprise can sometimes turn your day upside down.”
Assistants tend to be on the front lines when a company adopts new technology, said Ray Weikal, spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, a networking and training group. They can be the ones coordinating remote teams, managing their company’s Web site and learning cloud-based applications.
Assistants’ workload has increased as companies cut their support staff, according to a report by the association. In a survey, 52 percent of assistants said they supported three or more people.
The group, which started in 1942, had the word “secretaries” as part of its name until 1998, when it was removed because it had negative connotations and most members no longer had the word in their job titles, Mr. Weikal said.
Recently, though, the number of assistants with the word “secretary” in their title has risen — from 8 percent in 2009 to nearly 15 percent in 2011. It’s possible that “Mad Men,” the popular television series, could be stoking nostalgia for “the classic image of the American corporate secretary,” the report said.
Association members who responded to a survey reported a median salary of $45,000, according to the report.
“I don’t think assistants have been given the recognition and certainly not the compensation for the level of talent that they bring to this role,” Ms. Duncan said.
At Adecco, the staffing firm, more clients are asking for assistants with college degrees, said Joyce Russell, its president. “They want that broad-based knowledge that you pick up in college,” she said, and she has seen clients promote people who perform well in that role. But Ms. Russell added that she didn’t think a college degree was necessary to perform the job.
Ms. Duncan said: “I’ll take street smarts and common sense” over a college degree in an assistant. Regardless of whether an assistant has a degree, she prefers to cultivate people who see the job as a long-term career — who want to “expand within the role, not outside of it” by working for higher-level bosses, for example.
About 95 percent of the I.A.A.P.’s members are women, and the gender stereotypes of past eras have not completely faded away. You’ll still hear a few bosses referring to “my girl,” Ms. Duncan said.
When it comes to job duties, where do assistants draw the line? Will they be expected to serve coffee? Pick up dry-cleaning? Boundaries are best established during the job interview, Ms. Duncan said. The relationship works best if both parties see it as a business partnership, she said, adding that there is a difference between providing a service and “being a servant.”
NOREEN P. DENIHAN is an executive assistant who sees her job as managing the life of her boss, Donald J. Gogel, chief executive of the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. As such, she has no problem taking care of some of his personal responsibilities.
Ms. Denihan has been an assistant since 1976 and can remember, in one of her previous workplaces, when someone threw a box of tissues at her because the type she had bought would irritate his nose.
“The box hit the floor and I just stepped over it” as if nothing had happened, she said.
She hasn’t had to deal with a tantrum like that in quite a while. She finds her work fulfilling, she said, and knows that she has an impact on the ultimate productivity of the firm. “I chose this path,” she said. “I like what I do. I really feel that it makes a difference to the firm and to my boss.”