Are your skills on course?

In the good old days, a secretary was someone who took notes, did a lot of typing, and fielded calls for the boss. You don't find so many of those any more! Today's PAs juggle a host of responsibilities. But has secretarial training kept pace with this workplace shift? We asked business journalist Roisin Woolnough to investigate

By Roisin Woolnough

Project management, time management, people management – one word you hear a lot of now in training programmes is "management". This is because many PAs are fulfilling an office manager function. A recent survey of 1,200 admin professionals by recruitment specialists OfficeTeam found that 62% are responsible for general office management. On top of that, 71% say they regularly organise company events, 64% organise conferences and 58% write company reports.

Another recent survey, this time by training providers Hemsley Fraser, tells the same story. And according to Tamsyn Harris, client services director at Hemsley Fraser, over 47% of PAs say they have experienced a significant change in their role in the last six months. She says these shifts, by necessity, influence the components of training courses. “While our traditional secretarial and administrative skills courses continue to be popular, these findings have been backed up by the huge increase in demand from PAs and office professionals for our specialist areas of training, such as project management, event organisation, budget management and recruitment.”

Harris says its people management and project management courses are showing significant growth. However, its best selling courses tend to be development programmes that cover a wide range of disciplines, rather than niche courses. Those development programmes include "A Development Programme for the New Secretary", "Success Skills for PAs and Executives" and "The Executive Secretary Development Programme". Hemsley Fraser has also recently launched its new Certificate and Diploma programmes to reflect the wider role of the PA.

Broaden your options
Most providers are now offering a broader spectrum of topics. Training provider Hawksmere offers courses for the interpersonal and management skills for different levels of secretary and PA, as well as assertiveness, presentations, time and stress management and a course specifically to help women managers.

Simon Pridgeon, a training manager at recruitment and training experts Reed, agrees with Harris that there is much more provision of management topics now. Some of its top selling courses include modules on time management, getting organised and how to organise others. There is also an "Introduction to Management" course.

Spearhead Training, a company that specialises in management, marketing and sales skills, says there is such a need for secretaries to have good management skills now, that it has launched a new course this year to meet that demand. “We introduced a new course called ‘The PA’s Guide to Managing Others’,” says David Stone, MD of Spearhead Training.

Pridgeon thinks there has been an upsurge in the number of senior support staff wanting training. “Traditionally, senior level staff have shied away from training,” he says. “But we are seeing an increasing demand at this level now.”

He also thinks there is more demand for training to assist support staff in specialist areas. “Secretaries are not just people who look after the MD’s diary and letters any more,” he explains. “Companies rely on secretaries for day to day departmental tasks and you'll find people providing more support for their managers. Also, in smaller companies, secretaries and PAs are sometimes running HR departments or marketing. This is the main trend we’ve seen – secretaries getting more involved in specific areas.”

Consequently, over the past couple of years, Reed has introduced more courses to support this, such as ‘Finance for PAs’, ‘Marketing for PAs’ and ‘Management skills for PAs’.

Two more courses have been launched this year by Reed. One is on management skills for senior PAs. The other concentrates on how to operate as a team secretary. Pridgeon says this is driven by the growing need for PAs to work within a team. “A lot of PAs, particularly in legal and finance firms, are being asked to work for not just one manager, but for several,” he says. “The course looks at how you do that and keep everyone happy.”

This view is born out by the OfficeTeam survey, which shows that more and more support staff are working for more than one manager. It found over 20% of PAs spend half their day working for more than one person.

Team working skills
With all these extra duties and team working, communication skills are vital, which explains why there are now more courses or course components looking at how to communicate effectively. Training and conference providers IIR, for example, runs courses called "Advanced Influencing and Interpersonal skills for secretaries and PA" and "High Impact Communication Skills". However, adds Rosy Key, senior marketing manager at IIR, its most popular course remains the more generic "Key Skills for Exceptional Performance".

Mike Woodhouse, MD at Reach Training, agrees that there is high demand for training in what are called softer skills. His company is in the process of designing some video based training in this area. “Something we have in the pipeline is video-based training in soft skills,” he says. “Called Business Links Video and viewable from the desktop, it covers issues such as worklife balance, stress and diversity.”

Woodhouse thinks online training is growing all the time as people become more au fait with the concept. But Jessica Dooley, marketing executive at Pitman Training, thinks online and distance based learning on their own only have so much potential. She thinks a variety of different delivery styles are required and that PAs need instructor-led training in some areas, whereas in other areas they can study alone quite happily at their own PC.

It may sound like traditional secretarial training is no longer a possibility, but of course, the need still exists for people to learn traditional skills, such as shorthand. Dooley says Pitman is in the middle of setting up a new shorthand course, to be run mostly in Teeline. Called "Shorthand for the 21st century", there are still five modules to be developed before it can be launched on the market.

It seems like the training programmes are there to help the modern day secretary tackle everything – all you need now is the time to do it.

Hemsley Fraser
Pitman Training
Reach Training
Spearhead Training

Roisin Woolnough is a freelance journalist specialising in employment and business issues. She regularly writes for The Guardian, Personnel Today, Computer Weekly and other leading business titles.

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