How to retain talented PA staff

Often with responsibilities to match their bosses, part of the solution to keeping PAs lies in developing talent, says Jenny Keefe

Article in full

Case Study – Heritage Lottery Fund

In the days of yore, young women took typing so they would have a fallback skill while they waited for Mr Right to show up. Hair scooped up into a bun and feet squeezed into impossibly high heels, secretaries typed up correspondence (often in pools), made the tea and managed diaries. But, my, how times have changed.

Now secretaries and personal assistants (PAs) have responsibilities to rival their bosses’. They need to be a dab hand at conference planning, a whiz with budgets and be able to rustle up a Powerpoint presentation in the time it takes to change a typewriter ribbon.

The trouble is, while skilled support staff are in hot demand, today’s graduates still see the PA’s job as a rung on the ladder rather than the ladder itself.

Jo Stuteley, regional manager for secretarial recruitment firm Officeteam, says: “I don’t think that the role gets the best PR. Take the example of Bob the Builder: a whole generation of kids want to be builders now. They think it’s fun or cool to go into that industry. We need someone for our own industry – a Miss Moneypenny for our time.”

And then there are age issues: according to the Officeteam workplace survey 2005, 37% of admin staff over 40 say they are in their career of choice. But only 20% of those under 40 said this was the case.

“Nevertheless, I think there has been quite a cultural change since I started 12 years ago. It wasn’t necessarily a role that you could develop, but now I think people really want to see what they can make of that role,” says Stuteley. The market for administrative staff is buoyant. Joe Tomazou, joint managing director at admin recruitment agency Gordon Yates, says: “The number of jobs has increased and therefore candidates have a greater choice, which then causes more competition for employers.”

So once you find a good PA, you need to hang on to them for dear life. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, allegedly paid $1m to keep her assistant. So what then, is the secret to keeping secretaries sweet?

“Candidates do look at benefits as well as salaries, but it depends very much on the market you are working in. Some candidates will put a lot of emphasis on benefits but that seems to be if they’ve been used to receiving them,” says Tomazou.

The Officeteam survey found that the top three benefits received by support staff were pensions (72%), private healthcare (38%) and bonuses (35%).

Other perks are a luck of the draw depending on the boss. The Times’ CrÀme executive secretary & PA survey showed that 8% of respondents regularly receive gifts from their boss, including Tiffany jewellery, flowers and champagne. One manager even paid for their PA’s wedding dress.

However, the Officeteam survey found that, in reality, demands are rather more modest: flexible working was the favourite benefit among secretaries, cited by 65%. This was followed by extra holidays (53%) and study leave (50%).

Jackie Wood, membership development manager for the Institute of Qualified Professional Secretaries, says: “A bunch of flowers even would not go amiss if someone’s been working their butt off for a week and stayed late. Or make them a cup of tea instead of getting them to make one for you.”

But ultimately pressured PAs would prefer time off over token gestures. Officeteam found that 21% of admin staff put in more than five hours overtime a week. “At the moment, we are finding that they are doing very long hours. They are matching their bosses’ hours because of the criteria of the job, for instance, if a boss travels a lot in different time zones they want to be able to get hold of their PA,” explains Wood.

She adds bosses should allow employees to tailor their hours to fit in with natural peaks and troughs of the job. “People who work in this kind of environment would really relish flexible working because if they knew a boss has a meeting at 10am to 12pm then they could go out of the office for two hours and come back and then work two extra hours that night.”

Vanessa Price is PA to the medical director of Gwent Healthcare NHS Trust and holds the title of The Times’ PA of the Year for 2005. “I’m lucky that I work for an organisation that recognises its PAs. We have flexible working policies in place, for instance, job sharing, part-time working, nine-day fortnights,” she says.

Price, who holds a 2:1 honours degree, was recently promoted to another job with better pay within the NHS. But she loved what she did so much that she rushed back to her old post when she saw it advertised a year later.

“We have just introduced something within the NHS which is known as Agenda for Change. Part of that is looking at introducing a formal appraisal system for administrative staff right across the board, where employers will then pick up gifted talented administrative secretaries. They then ensure that there is a clear career structure that [PAs] can follow and provide them with professional training every step of the way.”

Price is not in the job for gold or glory, but sets store in good old fashioned respect. Examples of how not to do it have hit the headlines. In June, a high-earning city lawyer demanded payment for dry cleaning from a secretary who spilt ketchup on his trousers during lunch. He ended up resigning.

Price adds that, because a talented PA makes their job look easy, their efforts can be overlooked. “In many respects, a really good PA is almost like an invisible one. I’m very very lucky that I work for someone that engenders loyalty. He is very big in respect of providing that support and recognition. There is nothing nicer than having someone turn round to you at the end of the day and say, ‘you did a really good job at doing that – we couldn’t have done it without you.’ Because so often you can plod along if you are taken for granted, especially if they know that you can achieve results.”

Case study – Heritage Lottery Fund

You can’t build an organisation on shaky support staff, so Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) PAs are well looked after.

Mervin Milton, personnel manager, says: “If it goes pear-shaped with a PA it’s sometimes one of the most difficult things to unravel and to solve. Because it’s such a close relationship between the manager and the PA, it’s difficult when problems occur. So we have to try and make sure we take particular care with PAs because they are so key.”

At the body, which awards grants to heritage projects such as museums and historic buildings, support duties extend far past photocopying and making coffee. “There are so many graduates around, you are tripping over them. So inevitably quite a few of our PAs have graduated.

“We would expect them to have a wide range of skills on the IT front and be able to prepare a Powerpoint presentation, for instance. A lot of the managers also ask that their assistants take on a research role.”

Benefits play an important part when it comes to targeting skilled recruits. “Our salaries are reasonably competitive but perhaps we are unable to pay the kind of salaries the private sector pays for people like PAs. We’ve got an extremely good pension scheme because we are in the civil service pension scheme. In addition to that, we have a gym allowance [where] we give £50 every month through payroll for staff to join a gym. All staff have an annual health screening.”

Milton also keeps workers’ hours in check. “If PAs do any overtime, we make sure they are paid. We don’t encourage a long hours culture.”