PROFILE – The UK’s First BA Honours Degree Graduates in Business Administration For Personal Assistants

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Back in 2011, four aspirational Assistants embarked on a degree in Business Administration – the first degree in the UK to offer specific business administration techniques for management assistants. The course, was originally developed by Middlesex University in partnership with the Association of Personal Assistants, which closed its doors in January 2014 after its founder suffered a debilitating stroke.

Despite the setbacks, Claire Howard from the Financial Conduct Authority, Carol Lockett from WRBC Services, Aisling O’Meara from Monitor and Yvette Squire from Transport For London. recently graduated with a BA Honours Degree in Business Administration for Personal Assistants. Here, in their own words, all four ladies tell their stories and explain why professional development for Assistants is at the forefront of how the profession needs to develop.

Claire Howard

Can I have a bit of background? Where did you grow up? What were your ambitions? How did you end up as an Assistant?

My name is Claire Louise Howard, I’m 38 years old and grew up in SouthWoodford, London and now live in Loughton, Essex. I knew from an early age my strength has always been in creativity, organisational and personnel skills. Whilst at school my career ambitions were very limited due to the fact that when choosing my GCSE options the subjects that I hoped to study didn’t fit in with the timetable of the compulsory modules.

25 years ago I can remember my Mum saying to me “you want to be a secretary, don’t you”! To be frank, my answer was “No” – the thought of just sitting in an office all day at a typewriter just didn’t thrill me. I learnt to use the typewriter and keyboard during class lessons and quickly caught on the skill of touch-typing… in fact, I was a whizz at it! I realised that actually that was one of my strengths and before I knew it I was enrolled as a GCSE Business Studies, Business Information and Keyboarding student gaining an A and two Cs grades. After two years at Sixth Form School I began working in fulltime employment as an Administrative Assistant at HM Customs & Excise, Abbey National (Santander), Bank of England, Financial Services Authority and now Financial Conduct Authority.

What has been your career path as an Assistant so far? Who do you currently work for and in what role?

I have been a full-time PA for 20 years, most of that time in the financial market sector, rising from Team Administrative Assistant through to Executive Personal Assistant to the Managing Director and Executive Board Member. I have strived to progress my career forward in a positive direction, always preparing myself to be in the best position possible whenever a suitable opportunity or promotion arises. I was always prepared to put myself forward for covering more senior PA roles, allowing me to gain the confidence and experience required.

Three years ago the FSA transformed into FCA, and in that restructure the MD role dissolved, putting me in the predicament where the job I absolutely loved didn’t exist anymore and I was “displaced”. I had to find a suitable role within the new structure which landed me back in a Director’s office. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on my next career move and return to more standard and flexible working hours which then became ideal when considering study time. This particular circumstance just so happened to be around the time when the APA & Middlesex University were seeking interest in their BA in Business Administration for PAs. A case of chance meets opportunity!

What other Assistant specific qualifications have you taken or courses have you taken. If you want to comment on any of these then feel free.

I achieved 26 administrative Pitman and Royal Society of Art certifications whilst studying at sixth form School, and two Diplomas in Business Administration and Personal Assistance whilst working full time. I have received a variety of training and attended courses in the past to supplement my learning. Hemsley Fraser is a preferred training supplier. I always found work-based training equally as rewarding and informative as having qualifications because it puts theory into practice.

So what attracted you to do the degree? What did you think the benefits would be?

Having been an APA Fellow member and achieving the title at Diploma level inspired me to be the first cohort to ever study for this particular title, so it was an exciting opportunity for me. As a mature student the time seemed right for me as the design of the distant-learning tutorials enabled me to work full time and study. The attraction was to accomplish a wide range of business principles that would benefit me in the future in terms of career prospects and contributing to future business operations and projects.

Did your businesses pay or did you have to? If your business, what was the business case? Did you have to write one?

I put a case study forward for sponsored study through my workplace which was continually reviewed by management throughout the entire course. The purpose of the business case was to justify finance, investment of time, supporting my personal objectives, career plan and how I will contribute back into the business, for example strategic objectives and performance.

Please comment on how you feel about education and personal development for Assistants and why you think it is important

Formal education for PAs has been very limited in the past, but the workplace is a great way of learning new skills via the experience of daily activities, mentoring, coaching, e-learning, on-the-job training – it doesn’t necessary have to be formal education but rather equipping you with skills to enable you to contribute positively to a wide-range of business practices.

The modern day Assistant is ever changing and evolving quite dramatically as it moves with time and technology. It is therefore vital to keep up to date with best practice to provide first-class assistance and to remain an effective in the role. With Middlesex University offering a formal academic degree specifically for PAs shows how the field of that career is being taken seriously in the academic and business world, and we deserve such formal accreditation. I personally feel the benefit of having been formally educated with a degree in terms of confidence, ability to contribute in the workplace and a deeper level of understanding of business principles.

How did you fit it in around your full time job?

The university website is available 24-7, and each module is based on a 12-week learning cycle totalling 300 notional hours. Time management skills were at the foremost of my thoughts, particular during the technical modules. I used my own personal time at home before and after core work hours and at the weekends, and took annual leave to enable me to take online timed exams and to submit coursework by set deadlines.

The APA, the organisation that launched the qualification unfortunately closed down earlier this year due to the serious ill health of its owner. This must have caused some issues. How difficult a time was this? How would you advise someone who comes up against an obstacle like this in their career?

We had finished our course at the time of Gareth Osborne’s (the Director General) ill health and had limited contact throughout our studying, however being an APA member I was really sad to hear of the news and the closure of the organisation. Gareth had worked tremendously hard to construct the degree content with the University – I know he wouldhave been so proud that we have graduated! Yvette, Aisling, Carol and I have strength as a team and we have always encouraged each other and were determined to complete the course despite whatever hurdles came our way.

If you knew then what you know now, would you still have done it?

Juggling working and studying was a huge commitment; I hadn’t quite comprehended how much impact it would have on my personal time, so reflecting back I would have made some simple changes to improve my wellbeing and would have liked to have received more frequent contact with the University as studying by distance learning can be quite isolating. Studying for the degree was something I’d always wanted to achieve so I would definitely recommend anyone to sign up. I’ve come away with great knowledge of business administration and I can only build upon that!

So what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I am enjoying reflecting on my achievement and the confidence to seek the next challenge and contribute to some interesting projects at work as I now have the taste to learn further skills. My organisation is moving to the Olympic Park in Stratford in 2018 so I am keen to contribute to the operational projects to create a new fresh and dynamic environment to work in. I shall also be looking out for any new studying courses that may be launched in the future!

Carol Lockett

Can I have a bit of background? Where did you grow up? What were your ambitions? How did you end up as an Assistant? I grew up in Scotland and didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career and as a consequence have had a number of career changes throughout my 30 years in the workplace.

What has been your career path as an Assistant so far? Who do you currently work for and in what role?

After a variety of roles in the administrative sector as well as spending time as a fitness instructor, interior design sales advisor and mum, I am currently Operational Support Manager and Assistant to the SVP International at WRBC Services.

What other Assistant specific qualifications have you taken or courses have you taken? If you want to comment on any of these then feel free.

I continuously up skilled to keep pace with technology having started out on manual typewriters with telex used on a daily basis and I still do. You can never have too many skills as a PA as it keeps you fresh and versatile, ready to tackle the next challenge. Furthermore, I was very lucky to work for several years in the public sector and did masses of in-house training: Management Accounting, Recruitment and Selection, Appraisals for Appraisers, People Management, Team Management, Partnership Working, Risk Assessment, Health and Safety Awareness, Quality Management, Self-Assessment, Quality Standards, Change Management, Quality Assurance for Mentors, Benchmarking for Mentors, Introduction to Performance Improvement, Learning Champion Training Programme, Coaching Roadmap Programme, etc. All of which made me the person I am today and equipped me to cope with situations, personally and professionally, in a pragmatic, tactful and diplomatic way.

So what attracted you to do the degree? What did you think the benefits would be?

The only other specific PA course I had done was in 1980 (RSA, Diploma for Personal Assistants, a post-A level course as opposed to a post-O level course), and I was interested to see what exactly was on offer for PAs today who wanted to graduate and PA as a career. Several of my friends, family and colleagues questioned why I would want to dedicate all my spare time to studying “at my age” but I am a lifelong learner and think you are never too old to learn.

Did your businesses pay or did you have to? If your business, what was the business case? Did you have to write one? 

I did apply in writing, highlighting the pluses and ROI back to the business of allowing me to professionally develop and study new areas of business. My business fully supported me. P

lease comment on how you feel about education and personal development for Assistants and why you think it is important

If you want to market yourself in this job market, you need to do something that makes you different from the crowd. Today’s employment environment is ever shifting and no job is for life, plus pensionable ages are increasing every year thus there is no room for complacency and stagnation. Learning keeps you fresh and open to change.

How did you fit it in around your full time job?

And five grandchildren! With great difficulty, for studying and assignments, I earmarked 6-9pm Monday to Thursday, had Friday and Saturday nights off and then earmarked either all of Saturday or Sunday day time. There was no let up as our learning was continuous to fit all the academic hours in, even the Uni holidays were taken up with advance study and preparation for the next Module.

The APA, the organisation that launched the qualification unfortunately closed down earlier this year due to the serious ill health of its owner. This must have caused some issues. How difficult a time was this? How would you advise someone who comes up against an obstacle like this in their career?

To be honest, I had no support or interest from the APA. But I have learned over the years that if you are going to study by distance learning you have to be prepared to be an “independent” learner and rely on yourself and your own self-discipline. Having supportive students in your cohort is a bonus and we were very lucky to have that with our group. It certainly helps to bounce ideas around, keep your momentum up and work towards the common goal.

If you knew then what you know now, would you still have done it?

Most definitely.

So what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

In five years’ time, I will be 61 so unless I have won the lottery or been pensioned off, I would like to be gainfully employed doing what I do now, only even better.

Aisling O’Meara 

Can I have a bit of background? Where did you grow up? What were your ambitions? How did you end up as an Assistant?

I’m from Galway, which is on the west coast of Ireland. I moved to London in 2006, at the age of 24, and landed in a team admin role at the Competition Commission working my way up to a more senior admin role and also supported the Senior Inquiry Directors. From there I moved on to the Cooperation and Competition Panel where I was the PA to the Director and Office Manager. In 2012 we transitioned into Monitor and in April 2013 I took up the post of Office/Facilities Manager at Monitor which is now my current role.

What other Assistant specific qualifications have you taken or courses have you taken? If you want to comment on any of these then feel free.

I completed the PA Diploma in March 2011 and since then have been on numerous courses and training:

  • Various in-house line management courses 2014 (as I manage four staff members)
  • Project Management – in-house at Monitor (Nov 2013)
  • DSE/VDU Assessor Training (April 2013)
  • Fire Warden Training (June 2013)
  • Line Management Training – in-house at Monitor (October 2012)
  • CIPD Law at work – Fundamentals of Employment Law (May 2011)
  • Diploma in Personal Assistance – Pass with Credit (March 2011)

So what attracted you to do the degree? What did you think the benefits would be?

I have always been keen to further develop my education and after completing the DipPA with the Association of Personal Assistants (APA) it seemed like the next best step for me. I was very lucky to have had really good challenging opportunities in all past roles I’ve worked in, giving me the chance to work my way up, but I felt that if I wanted to go further outside of my organisation I would need the degree to get my foot in the door!

Did your businesses pay or did you have to? If your business, what was the business case? Did you have to write one?

When I worked at the Cooperation and Competition Panel our management team encouraged staff to go on training courses, they felt that if the training budget is there it should be utilised as professional development is very important for staff and the organisation. The Director saw my potential and was the one who suggested I look into doing a degree and agreed that if I found a suitable course that benefited me and my role they would be willing to cover the costs.

Please comment on how you feel about education and personal development for Assistants and why you think it is important

There are lots of many brilliant and talented PAs out there with various qualifications, who have carried out fantastic projects and I’m sure have very impressive CVs. A job very much depends on how a person sells themself, how they match with a company and how they seize an opportunity. If an opportunity doesn’t come your way it can be very hard to look for that perfect role without the necessary qualifications. For me I think it’s very important to continue developing throughout your career, be it a degree or be it various courses that help enhance your skills and add to your CV. You are never too old to learn and you can never have too many skills.

How did you fit it in around your full time job?

It was pretty difficult as my organisation was going through a transition and then I changed to a more senior role at work as the Facilities Manager. I had a lot to take on as I was involved in the whole move project (for both my old organisation physically moving into Monitor and then relocating all of Monitor to a new building that was being refurbished). I also lost my Dad in the early stages of the course which was very hard to deal with for quite a number of months.

That was the biggest struggle I faced from the beginning to the end. Dealing with a loss, working long hours and studying definitely didn’t come easy but when you take it upon yourself to sign up for the course then you are going to push yourself to see it through. I also had a lot of good support from my boss and colleagues. The support from the other ladies on my course helped too, even if it was just an email to have a moan it was nice to get a positive “you can do it” response. We would also meet for a bite to eat and a chat every few weeks to see how we were all getting on. We still do!

The APA, the organisation that launched the qualification unfortunately closed down earlier this year due to the serious ill health of its owner. This must have caused some issues. How difficult a time was this? How would you advise someone who comes up against an obstacle like this in their career?

APA didn’t have much involvement with the course once it started. It’s a long distance learning course which is online so you study in your own time, ensuring you stick to deadlines and you rely on the support from your tutor on each module allocated by the University. It did affect me in a more personal way hearing about Gareth’s illness as I knew him well from attending various PA networking events and completing the DipPA which Gareth facilitated. I was very sorry to hear about his illness and the closure of APA as it was a fantastic organisation.

If you knew then what you know now, would you still have done it?

Definitely, of course it was tough at times but the sense of achievement made it all worth it.

So what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Right now I am loving being a Facilities Manager for Monitor. I’ve taken various courses around this role and am still learning. My next course, which I will be doing in the New Year, is NEBOSH (The National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health). Luckily this is only a two-week course with a one-day exam at the end so I think after the degree it should be a breeze. Here’s hoping anyway! Beyond that, who know? Maybe in five years’ time I can be the Facilities Manager for a massive organisation with some good perks?

Yvette Squire                

Can I have a bit of background? Where did you grow up? What were your ambitions? How did you end up as an Assistant?

I was born and raised in Birmingham of Caribbean parentage at a time when racism was tolerated in the 70s/80s and there were low expectations from my school due to my background. I was only encouraged to do sports or home economics/cooking. In general, university and degrees were seldom mentioned and when mentioned in passing, never in terms of it being possible for me to aspire to. So at that time, I never thought I could do a degree as I was lead to believe from teachers and careers advisers that degrees were for rich white kids and not for people like myself. Following recommendations from teachers, I actively participated in sport at school. I then went on to do catering at college based on the advice of the careers officer. However, I found that I did not enjoy either (sports or catering). I decided that I would like to work in an office as a secretary, so embarked on a secretarial course at my local college in Birmingham. I did my RSAs and Pitman Typing, Word Processing and Communication. I did this on my day off whilst working full time at a restaurant. I passed my courses.

What has been your career path as an Assistant so far? Who do you currently work for and in what role?

My first break into the office environment was working as a receptionist/telephonist for a financial company in Birmingham. Whilst working there, I was promoted to PA to the Accountant. Following this, I worked mainly in the NHS or NHS aligned services as a PA. I was sponsored by Central Birmingham Health Authority on a BTEC HNC in Public Administration course on a day-release basis. After a few years, I moved to London and got a job as a GP Practice Administrator for which they funded my AMSPAR Diploma in Practice Management course. Whilst there, I was promoted to Practice Manager. I decided to open my horizons and to try something different outside of the Health Sector and got a Job at Transport for London (TfL) in the HR Department as Training Co-ordinator. It was whilst in this role that I decided to go back to being a PA, a role I missed. I applied for an internal role and was appointed. I’ve since moved to a different role and I am currently PA to a Senior Executive at Transport for London and have been with TfL since 2001.

What other Assistant specific qualifications have you taken or courses have you taken. If you want to comment on any of these then feel free.

In addition to the above, in 2009 I completed a Diploma in Personal Assistance Course with the Association of Personal Assistants (APA), this organisation ceased earlier this year. It was through the APA that I embarked on the BA Honours in Business Administration for PAs. The APA worked with Middlesex University to arrange this new Degree Programme, which was originally going to be a Foundation Degree for PAs, but following several discussions between the APA and the University, it was decided that the level should be raised to a Bachelors degree and the required accreditation was sought for this level.

So what attracted you to do the degree? What did you think the benefits would be?

The attraction for me in doing this degree was on several counts: firstly, having been told throughout my school life that I couldn’t achieve a degree, I realised through my work and study experience after school, that I could do a degree and pass just like anyone else. Also, originally this degree was sold as a Foundation Degree for PAs based on the vocational work of PA – though the degree later evolved! Finally, I believe in continuous development, so relished the challenge that a degree would bring but also fully understanding that once complete, the benefits would exceed the challenges.

This degree was with the Business Department of Middlesex University and it has all the benefits of any other BA degree in Business Administration, the only difference is in the title having “for PAs” at the end, just as there are degrees “for Executives”, which means that the students are often working full time in a particular profession and therefore a specific Programme is designed around this fact. The course covered the Business Administration modules such as: Human Resources, Financial Analysis, Process Management, Project Management etc. There were also work-based and group assignments. The benefits of passing this degree, for me, is that it has given me the academic tools which provide me with a competitive edge that goes hand in hand with my work experience.

Did your businesses pay or did you have to? If your business, what was the business case? Did you have to write one? 

Due to the confidentiality aspects of my organisation, all I will say is that a business case is always required from the person applying for sponsorship of courses. The business case should always include how the sponsorship will not only benefit the individual, but also the organisation.

Please comment on how you feel about education and personal development for Assistants and why you think it is important

I think it is important for Personal Assistants to continually develop as this ensures their knowledge and skills are up to date and therefore on par with the wider society, their peers/contemporaries and industry as a whole. Development comes in many forms so does not necessarily have to be a course, it could be mentoring, networking, attending seminars, in-house training, online training etc – whatever is appropriate. I chose the degree course as this was appropriate for my development and where I want to go next. It is down to the fact that I have continually sought development that I am able to move into other areas. We should all take charge of our own development.

How did you fit it in around your full time job? This was a very challenging course to fit in with full time work commitments and I can’t say it was easy. We met at Carol’s office in London for the group tasks (after a long day at work). I had no social life, no evenings or weekends! However, it was worth it in the end and with the support from the other women on my course, family, friends, my manager and sheer determination I completed it. It’s about believing in yourself, mustering support where you can and supporting others on your journey.

The APA, the organisation that launched the qualification unfortunately closed down earlier this year due to the serious ill health of its owner. This must have caused some issues. How difficult a time was this? How would you advise someone who comes up against an obstacle like this in their career?

This was very shocking and sad news not only on a professional level, but also on a personal level, as I got to know the founder really well and he had given presentations at our TfL PA Forum and was very passionate about the PA/EA role and development. It didn’t cause any issues as far as the degree was concerned, as the programme was already up and running when this unfortunate incident took place. We kept each other motivated as a group and my motto is that difficult circumstances in life won’t last for ever, take charge of the situation and change it if you can, be focussed and keep your eyes on the prize!

If you knew then what you know now, would you still have done it?

Absolutely!

So what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Well, my next development move is to qualify with the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA) in order to become a Chartered/Company Secretary. I like the idea of being a Board level team member with a broad base of skills such as corporate law, finance, governance, company secretariat, and management also, providing advice about the conduct of business, governance and compliance. Oh, and of course the money is good too!

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About Author

Lucy Brazier

Lucy Brazier is one of the world’s leading authorities on the administrative profession. As CEO of Marcham Publishing, specialist publishers of Executive Secretary Magazine, Lucy’s passion is for the Assistant role to be truly recognised as a career and not just a job. With access to the most forward-thinking, passionate and knowledgeable trainers and administrative business leaders in the world, as well as personally meeting and speaking to literally thousands of Assistants over the last nine years, Lucy’s knowledge of the market and what Assistants all over the world are facing on a day to day basis are second to none. For full list of speaking topics or for further enquiries please contact Matthew Want at [email protected] or visit http://executivesecretary.com/lucy-brazier/

2 Comments

  1. First of all, well done Ladies!

    Could you please send or give me details of where this courseis currently being offered or will be in 2016 please. I cannot seem to the this exact qualification online.
    Thank you

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