Administrative assistants, or secretaries, are the "right-hand" persons for an executive or a team of executives. They perform clerical tasks, such as handling correspondence, spreadsheets, Internet research and filing. They also field phone calls, manage executives' schedules, plan meetings and often serve as receptionists.
Administrative assistants focus on practical, hands-on aspects of supporting a business, often working in specific departments of large companies. Beginners may start out as file clerks or basic bookkeepers, managing their boss's calendar and keeping the office paper in order. As they gain experience, administrative assistants are entrusted with more sensitive material, confidential and proprietary information, and a greater amount of autonomy in terms of acting on behalf of their boss in her absence. They sign routine correspondence, run conference calls and meetings and take charge of travel itineraries. They often oversee the office's day-to-day operations as well. They may supervise cleaning staff, order supplies and be liaisons with maintenance and building management. As they progress, they're often tapped to work with teams of high-level executives or become one executive's personal assistant.
A high school education is usually sufficient for a beginner to enter this field, but a college degree is preferred, especially in technical, medical or legal offices. In these cases, administrative assistants spend extra time learning industry-specific terminology, jargon and protocol as they do their jobs.