As a high school student, Heather Brasher was not quite sure what education and career path she would choose. A senior year business class presentation by a business college representative pointed her toward a career as an administrative assistant. She initially earned a 10-month Executive/Administrative Assistant diploma from Fox College in Oak Lawn, Ill., and school job placement service led to an administrative assistant with prominent Chicago-based advertising firm Leo Burnett Co.
Once on the job, Heather realized she would need additional training and educational credentials to further her career. She built on her diploma coursework to earn an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Executive Assistant in July 2000.
Her schoolwork and experience at the advertising firm helped Heather land a position in the HR department of Chicago's Sara Lee Corp., where she not only provides administrative support for seven other department members, but also works with retirees on insurance benefits and the company pension plan.
Heather has currently put her plans for additional education on hold; working full-time and juggling a family life that includes a 1-year-old and an 8-year-old stepson leaves little extra time.
You & Your Career
Tell us about your career in business administration. Where did it start? How is it unfolding?
I began my career at Leo Burnett in October of 1997. It was my first "real" job and I stayed there until January of 2000. Leo Burnett is a very reputable company and looks great on my resume, but I really wasn't being challenged enough. In January of 2000, I left Leo Burnett and started my current position at Sara Lee.
You have worked for two large, well-known companies, including in your current position. Are there challenges to working for a major corporation as opposed to a smaller business environment?
I've never worked for a small company, but I would think that at a smaller company you may be more appreciated and recognized for your efforts. At a large company, you are just another employee and do not receive much reward or recognition for your daily contributions.
What do you enjoy most about your current position?
I most enjoy the benefits-related work as opposed to the secretarial aspect.
What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?
My greatest success is the benefits-related knowledge I gain though my position. My biggest career setback would have to be my family; however, I don't look at it as a negative setback. My ideas about continuing my education so that I can move into a more rewarding position have changed. Right now, I'd rather spend time at home than climb the corporate ladder.
What are some of your favorite responsibilities or projects?
As stressful as it is, I enjoy working with retirees the most. I spend the majority of my day helping them with their medical and pension issues. Over the past five years, they have grown to trust and depend on me when they need assistance.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
As far as my professional goals, I feel like I'm at a traffic light and I don't know which way I'm supposed to turn. My family is my life, however I have to work; my job is just a means to support my family.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your business administration/executive assistant education. What did you like and dislike about your education?
The program at Fox College consisted of typing, shorthand, dictation, transcription, general business, math, writing, computer programs, basic accounting, basic math, and "business common sense" courses. The full time diploma program was ten months long, and did not offer any flexibility. It was the equivalent of "boot camp." For ten months, I literally did not have time to do anything except homework. At the end of the program, I received a diploma and was placed in a job at Leo Burnett. After being out of school for a few years, I was taking night classes at Moraine Valley Community College and heard that Fox was offering additional classes on a part time basis that awarded an associate's degree upon completion. The remainder of the program was approximately six months, part time, and was not nearly as time consuming as the full time program.
How did you decide to study business administration/executive assistant?
When I was a senior in high school, a recruiter from Fox College came to talk to our Business Class. She told us that she went to Fox College and was placed in a position downtown. She described the position in a way that a high school student would perceive as the perfect job at the age of 19. I was undecided about what I wanted to do after high school and decided that I would go to Fox
How has your education benefited your career?
Before attending Fox, at the age of 18, I didn't have the necessary skills for the business world.
In retrospect, what do you know now… that you wish you knew before you pursued your business administration/executive assistant education? Would you change anything about your education if you could?
I wish I was more in touch with reality and realized that after it was all said and done the outcome would be that I was a secretary. The Fox College recruiters made the positions sound much more important and glamorous.
If I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I would have pursued my bachelor's degree directly after high school.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school for an education in business support fields?
Prospective students should look at their long-term goals and not be afraid to make sacrifices for those goals.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?
If a student's goal is truly to be an executive/administrative assistant then I would say attending Fox College is the best choice. I have heard nothing but great things from employers who are familiar with Fox and who use the school to recruit for administrative positions.
What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in business?
If you are determined to get into the business world, but cannot afford to attend a four- year college full time, it's a great way to get your foot in the door at a great company, while earning a decent salary that you will be able to live on while finishing your degree.
The Actual Work
What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
I provide administrative support to the Director of Global Benefits and eight staff members. Some of my other responsibilities include: enroll retirees into the medical plan; assist retirees with medical insurance issues; assist the administrator in initiating and approving commencement of pension benefits; update systems when participant information changes; provide participants with information regarding status of pension benefits; assist division personnel and agencies with their inquiries regarding pension and retiree medical; post benefit changes to the Sara Lee Corporation Intranet Site; process life insurance payments; prepare and maintain appeal documentation as it relates to employee benefits; draft and prepare correspondence relating to pension and retiree medical; prepare, organize, and coordinate mass mailings; sort and distribute mail and faxes; answer and screen incoming calls; make travel arrangements; and arrange meetings
Describe a typical day of work for you.
There is not much consistency in my work days. Depending on deadlines for the medical and pension systems, and various retiree situations, along with projects that my department is working on, no two days are the same.
What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?
My most valuable resources are Internet-based programs designed for our pension and medical plans.
What are some common myths about your profession?
I think that people are still stereotyping secretaries as being the same as they were in the 1950's. My job has very few secretarial aspects; it has evolved into much more of a Benefits Representative position without the title change.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Maintaining a "customer service" attitude when dealing with a difficult retiree is very challenging.
What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?
The greatest stress in my position comes from balancing the Benefits Coordinator piece (retiree assistance) with daily job duties and administrative duties; doing the job of two people.
Job Information & Advice
What is the job market for business support staff? Five-year outlook?
Executives will always need support so I believe there will always be positions in the industry.
What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?
To be honest, I'm not sure. I do know that it varies on the company and position. I also know that although I'm not by any means making "big bucks," I am still making more than a few friends who are working in the field that they pursued their Bachelor's degree in.
What are your top five pet peeves with your role as a business administrator/ executive assistant?
- People who view you as their personal assistant.
- People who ask you to do something simply because they are lazy or on a power trip.
- People who assume that what they want you to do must be more important than what you're already working on.
- People who do not realize that I do have my own responsibilities and deadlines to meet... I'm not sitting around waiting for someone to give me something to do.
- People putting urgency status on a project that is not urgent.
Do business administrators/executive assistant professionals typically use specialized computer programs?
Microsoft Office is the most used software.
Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
There are several web-based programs I am able to use to perform my daily job tasks. Our banking/pension systems are web-based, I have access to our insurance carriers' eligibility system because of the Internet, we can use the Internet to search for deferred vested retirees. The Internet is a great resource in my position.
What are some of the top challenges in facing administrative staffers in the HR field over the next decade?
Benefits administration is being outsourced.