ANYBODY in the financial industry looking to employ a competent secretary or executive assistant would do well to avoid BBC3’s latest drama offering. Personal Affairs, about a trio of secretaries working for a London bank, proposes a world of twirling bimbos who appear to be good for little other than photocopying, gossiping and inspiring the erotic fantasies of the square-jawed executives they work for. Oh dear.<br /><br />The reality of executive support staff, of course, is as different from the Beeb’s gang of vacuous airheads as it is from the even more old-fashioned Miss Moneypenny stereotype. If anything, the transition from diary-managing personal assistant to team-playing executive assistant has been exacerbated by the credit crunch, as companies look to place ever greater responsibilty on ever fewer, higher-flying shoulders.<br /><br />“The executive assistant role has evolved into a much more involved, business-active position,” says Tara O’Neill, manager of the secretarial and support division for recruiter Morgan McKinley. “There are still people who require one-to-one support on that traditional level, but in the large City banks that’s increasingly rare, and even the person supporting a managing director or group head will now often find themselves working for a number of other executives as well.”<br /><br />According to recruiters, the changing nature and importance of the executive assistant has led to a fundamental change in the type of person being employed. The old image of the secretary who gained training in skills such as typing and shorthand in secretarial college has gone out with the typewriter. The chances are, an executive assistant candidate will now be an ambitious, university-educated go-getter, who will be expected to be as clued up on the business being conducted as many of the executives in the department.<br /><br /><strong>BROAD EXPERIENCE</strong><br />Kate Tregoning, managing director for recruitment company Page Personnel Secretarial, reports having recently placed into an executive recruitment role a candidate who was a Cambridge University graduate and fluent French-speaker, while many companies are requiring candidates to have broad corporate experience.<br /><br />“It’s not unusual in the City to have positions where the preferred background is in management consultancy, or where people are going through banks’ graduate training programmes and then moving into executive assistant roles,” Tregoning says, explaining that most are graduates at the very least. “They’ve got to have the credibility, they’ve got to be trusted with high level responsibilities, so the calibre is incredibly high and getting higher. You’re still working on the support side, but it’s developed an awful lot, even in the last couple of years.”<br /><br />Senior support staff now have much greater commercial responsibilities, particularly in the client-facing world of the investment bank front office, where they will likely become the first point of contact for clients. Executive assistants are often expected to do research work in preparation for client meetings, put together documents for deals, travel with their teams to take part in meetings and roadshows, and to lead on client entertainment as well. <br /><br />It’s a far cry from the secretary typing out memos and fielding the boss’s phone-calls, and for that reason the selection process for such jobs has evolved accordingly. Several rounds of interviews often take place, with psychometric and numerical tests replacing the speed-typing assessments of yesteryear. One executive assistant recently placed by Morgan McKinley faced eight rounds of interview with 25 different people before getting a job, while another, with 12 years of experience at the top tier, was rejected after failing a numerical test. Nevertheless, says Tara O’Neill, the deal-breaker for finding an able executive assistant still has to be that ambitious, career-minded personality.<br /><br />“Technical skills are standard secretarial job spec, but if you’re going to work in revenue-generating, client-facing areas, you need to be someone who has an interest in the business and who wants to take on more responsibility. It is a personality-based job, and because it involves working with a team rather than one person these days, that ability to work with people and communicate well is very important.”<br /><br /><strong>POSITIVE SIGNS</strong><br />For those seeking positions, the past months have been as tough a time as for any sector within the City. When the banks looked to cut headcounts aggressively last year, the support area was one of the most obvious sectors for large-scale consolidation, the knock-on effect being that significant numbers of the positions that have become available have seen the combining of roles. Nevertheless, according to Kate Tregoning, the last six weeks has seen a few more positive signs for secretarial recruitment. She believes the job-cutting had seen the banks become lean beyond a working capacity, and reports two major banks that had placed a freeze on permanent recruiting now advertising some positions again – including newly created roles, suggesting departments are growing once again, if only extremely tentatively.<br /><br />Not that top quality candidates are easy to find, especially in this market.<br /><br />“Good candidates are scarce, because for anyone who has a job there’s a huge nervousness about moving, and a lot of people are holding their breath at the moment,” she says. “A lot of our clients are thinking there must be thousands of candidates out there, but actually finding those people that do have the right experience is not so easy at the moment.”<br /><br />So far during the recession, temporary secretarial recruitment has seen rather more activity, as in constricted circumstances it’s far easier for managers to get approval and sign-off for non-permanent positions. Temping has always accounted for a significant proportion of the support sector, particularly at more junior levels. However, whereas in the past temp roles often became converted into permanent positions, often within three months, that is now much less likely, with many assistants temping for 18 months or more with little prospect of a permanent appointment.