Admin/Clerical Work ‘Unskilled’?


I was doing some work for a client the other day and he was making recommendations that someone would be suitable for “reasonably unskilled work” like administrative and office/clerical work.

It got me thinking – do the general public really think that secretaries and other admin/clerical staff are “unskilled”?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many administrative professionals hold diplomas – some hold degrees – in business management. Many have Cert IV Workplace Training & Assessment qualifications. At the very least they will have done some sort of training whether it be bookkeeping, switchboard operation, been to business college or done certificates in typing and software/computer skills.

Whilst it’s true that just about everyone can type these days, there’s a definite difference between the “chook peck” two – or even three – finger typist and a touch typist. Touch typing is a skill – no doubt about it – and when you can touch type at over 100wpm that too is skillful.

Secondly, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there is a definite distinction between a typist and a transcriptionist. Work isn’t just typed anymore. It also needs to be edited, proofed, laid out, formatted, in many cases grammar checked on-the-fly …

So that covers typing. What about the skills associated with learning specific software used by your employer – and in the case of a VA, by any number of clients operating different systems who all have very different requirements? More often than not, the boss has no clue – or at least a very limited idea – how to use the software on his computer. And ‘knowing how to use it’ in a cursory sense is different from understanding the full potential and power of many software programs. (I still have clients who don’t know how to track changes in Word. That’s just one example.) The computer on his desk is most often used to communicate via email, do internet research or work on a spreadsheet. He – or she – has clerical/administrative staff quite simply because they do NOT have the necessary skills to do it all themselves … or the time.

Administration in itself is a skill. Not everyone can do it. An effective administrator needs people skills, great verbal, written and listening skills, the ability to make decisions on the fly, delegate appropriately, deal with customer complaints, visitors, suppliers, and manage staff.

My partner left school at 16 and can’t type to save his life but he is the most skilled person I know when it comes to decorative ironwork, leather work, and has an amazing eye for photography. Does that make him ‘unskilled’? I don’t think so.

Whilst those who have spent years at university and hold degrees in this or that might view themselves as “more skilled” than others, isn’t this mindset more intellectual snobbery than fact?

I’m not saying those who have spent years at uni and hold degrees are better or worse than those who don’t but to say something is unskilled reflects poorly on the person making the comment. Some level of skill is required in most jobs – and admin support staff require skills on multiple levels.

© Lyn Prowse-Bishop,


  1. Hi Lyn, I couldn’t agree more. You’ve really nailed it. I don’t hold any tertiary qualifications but I’ve been an office administrator/PA/paralegal (representing clients in court with barristers) and a medical transcriptionist for many, many years. I’d love someone to tell me I’m ‘unskilled’!

    I’m positive that many bosses have no real idea of just how much work is involved in keeping the wheels of their businesses turning smoothly. That takes skill.

    Excellent post.

  2. Debra says:

    Lyn, thank you so much for this post. Just recently I was frustrated by the same type of comment made to me with regard to the skills required to be a VA. If you ask me the skills required are endless (of course this depends upon the services you offer). If skills are not required to fill the position of a secretary then why can’t just anyone fill the position of PA to a CEO? Because, as you have so eloquently pointed out, great skill is required! Just as great skill is required to be an efficient receptionist…and the list goes on. The other “skill-less” job that seems to be going around at the moment is that of Social Media Manager (SMM) and I hate to break it to anyone who disagrees but certain skills are required to be an efficient and effective SMM. Sometimes I think that people just say this kind of thing about our industry and secretarial personnel as a whole to justify to themselves why they shouldn’t have to pay the price you are charging. Thanks again for a great post.

  3. Kylee says:

    Hi Lyn,

    I have to agree with what you have written, as I have studied and got nowhere, until I got a job in Administration/Clerical Side of things, before I considered myself a skilled office worker. To me Certificates can be useless unless you have the on the job experience to back it up.

  4. Once upon a time, admin/clerical workers may have been perceived as unskilled. I don’t believe this to be the case now. It has been my experience that those in admin/clerical positions hold pivotal positions in many organisations. They can be the first point of contact a client has (so a happy, positive approach is essential); they can know more about the comings and goings (and what is really happening in the workplace) than those higher up the organisation; they can decide how quickly things can happen (so they hold considerable power); they generally take great pride in what they do; they can feel they can make valuable contributions (if only they were asked or consulted); and they are keen to learn and progress. There are also the more mature aged workers who still want to work (but not in their original profession) as they move towards retirement. In many cases, these people will hold tertiary qualifications, be well educated, professional, have good work ethics, and are reliable. Personnel in admin/clerical roles really do need to be supported and they can be worth more than gold, if you acknowledge their value. I have found that I can find out more from the front office person (admin/clerical) than I can by talking to others in an organisation. They are a valuable source of information and very skilled in a diverse range of tasks. However, their job/role descriptions do not always reflect their value and consequently, this may lead to the mistaken belief that admin/clerical positions can be filled by ‘unskilled’ persons.

  5. execva says:

    Thanks everyone for your considered comments. Bernie lovely to see you here – this is your first comment I think on the blog and I appreciate your taking the time from YOUR busy schedule to do so. I’m so glad to have you support the view that admin/clerical workers are indeed skilled. I hope this means there is a greater perception ‘out there’ that admin staff offer a great deal to the workplace – the comment that set my blog post off however happened only very very recently – which is what got me thinking whether perceptions had indeed changed, or whether we still have a way to go.

    Having worked in the legal industry for many of my over 15 years’ in admin before starting my VA practice, the lawyers (particularly the younger ones) very definitely viewed the secretaries as ‘beneath’ them (could be a niche industry for your own business I think – they may be able to learn a lot from your offerings). Then I had this comment from another university-educated professional and wondered whether it is a mindset common amongst the tertiary educated, an industry, or more generally.

  6. MedTranscription says:

    I actually wonder whether university qualifications are no longer what they used to be anyway. The emphasis seemed to shift towards encouraging most students to do university courses, whereas I suspect some people would have been happier to follow a different path, such as a trade. It became the case that university degrees were thick on the ground and therefore somehow devalued.

    I do believe there is a snobbery amongst some degree holders though. I’ve also noticed comments in letters that suggest the dictator sees those who pursue a university degree in a different light. A good brain is a good brain. You only have to have a conversation with someone to recognise whether they have a high intellect. I’m happy for people who have degrees but there is life outside of them.

    There are medical receptionists who could have been doctors themselves and legal secretaries who could have been lawyers themselves. One can only hope that at least some doctors and lawyers recognise how fortunate they are to have such people working for them, because a better brain brings a better result.

    Also, some personalities are very suited to this type of work and gain a lot of satisfaction from it.

    I’ve not long resigned from a job because, amongst other things, it was so frustrating to work alongside receptionists who *were* unskilled and had a poor attitude. The world will be full of typists from now on, but it won’t be full of skilled operators. There’s a world of difference between a highly-skilled admin and one who is just along for the ride. Employers who don’t recognise that, do so at their peril. I believe a PA’s or receptionist’s skills make or break a business.

  7. execva says:

    Absolutely Sue! Well said. I agree with everything you’ve said here. In fact in my past life as PA to a criminal lawyer in Sydney I was being encouraged into becoming an advocate because it got to the point that whenever a client was arrested they would call and ask for me! With our civil claims cases I would do all the paperwork – including filing in court – and take the matter right to litigation – when he would then step in and take over. When you get to know your boss’s job so well there is often a blurring of the division between you. Experience counts for so much – and often so much more than a degree.

    I’ve heard it said that the most common question asked by engineers and marine biologists when they graduate from uni is “Do you want fries with that?” 😉

  8. Have perceptions changed recently? I suspect that as organisations gain a deeper appreciation of what it is that people in administrative or clerical type roles really do and how they contribute to the day to day functions of the organisation, there will be a greater appreciation of their value.

    In the case of an administrative person working the ‘front desk’ e.g. reception, this person represents the organisation and the way in which they interact will determine how customer service is perceived. If for example a receptionist in a medical facility treats a customer well, the customer (patient) may be more relaxed, less concerned about the medical procedure and provide good feedback. When poor customer service is provided, the customer may become distressed.

    So, in addition to their ability to manage day to day functions e.g. computers, mail, taskings etc, they also need to have highly developed people skills, not only for customer service, but in many cases, team work. They have problem solving skills, ability to use their initiative, knowledge about various interactions that occur on a daily basis e.g. contractors seeking entry to the workplace, and in some cases, know more about what is happening in the organisation than they are given credit for.

    When I worked in another organisation conducting assessments and reviews, I made a point of talking to administrative to find out what was actually happening.

    It is also important to understand that in some cases, mature age workers seek administrative or clerical positions to suit life style arrangements, and these people may bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that can lie untapped unless someone actually talks with them and finds out what they can bring to the table e.g. project management, specialised computer skills, training skills etc.

    Never underestimate the value of a person working in an administrative or clerical role.

  9. execva says:

    Everything you say there is so true Bernie! I don’t think perceptions have changed recently per se. I think it’s probably individuals and the perceptions or values they hold personally that make them value or de-value any particular job or role.

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