Life as a PA in 2020

Life as a PA header

Earlier this year we published our annual Audience Insight Report, a thorough exploration of the pre-COVID lives of business support professionals based on the results of a survey completed by more than 4,000 members of the SecsintheCity community.

Accounting for 18% of that survey’s total respondents, Personal Assistants make up the second largest group of professionals in our audience. In addition to average salaries of £36,869, 76% of these PAs were awarded benefits and 57% topped up their base earnings with a bonus. However, further inspection revealed a number of discrepancies in the data provided by our audience.

For example, we discovered that more PAs than ever are supporting multiple bosses while remaining on the same pay as their single-support counterparts. Meanwhile, our research indicates notable disparities in remuneration and rewards between PAs of different ethnicities.

These findings, combined with the fallout of a global pandemic, have had irrefutable impact on the lives and livelihoods of Personal Assistants in the UK and around the world. With this front of mind, we decided to dig deeper into the data offered by our audience, consulting with members of the SecsintheCity community and the industry experts over at specialist recruitment agency Bain and Gray to find out what it’s really been like to be a PA in 2020.

A Different Kind of Gap

In contrast to a national average gender pay gap of 17% that favours men, female PAs in our audience reported earnings of 5% - or £1,918 - more than males in comparable roles. This figure, however, is likely skewed by an overwhelmingly large female majority of 99% among Personal Assistants.

However, when viewed as a whole, the traditionally female-dominated profession of business support and administration is slowly becoming more diversified in terms of gender. 11% of total responses to our survey came from male candidates in 2019; a record turnout for us.

It remains to be seen whether this growing male representation will filter up to the level of PA, but for now the role remains firmly in the hands of talented, intelligent and resourceful women.

Craig Harris quote

Craig Harris, Assistant and former winner at our prestigious PA of the Year Awards, has experienced firsthand the challenges faced by the few men who try to get onto the PA career ladder.

“The biggest challenges I’ve faced have been the stereotypes associated with the PA role, many believe that it’s ‘woman’s work’ which just isn’t true or relevant,” Craig told us. “I have been told by female peers that their bosses have expressed clearly that they would never have a male assistant as it’s ‘weird’. I also definitely think I’ve been knocked back for roles because I’m a man and have felt the uneasiness when being interviewed.”

In order to attract and retain a greater number of men to the PA role, Craig believes that young men at the start of their careers need to be taught that it is a practicable professional path.

“We need to be showing younger guys leaving education that being an Assistant is a viable, challenging and rewarding career choice,” says Craig, “that it doesn’t have to be a steppingstone into something else and that you can make a decent living doing it.”

School Leavers and Teacher Pleasers

Education pathways and levels among Personal Assistants in our audience are highly varied, so while 30% are educated to A-level, we also count 28% with an undergraduate degree and 24% whose highest level of education is their GCSEs. This indicates that there are a multitude of roads that can lead to a PA career; some leave school and, presumably, join the office support profession in an entry level role, while others decide to pursue various forms of further and, sometimes, higher education.

PA salaries by education level
Education level Average annual salary
Master's degree £36,922
Bachelor's degree £36,329
A-Level £36,845
GCSE £38,068
HNC/HND £37,068


However, education level ultimately appears to make little difference to PAs in terms of pay, as demonstrated in the table above. In fact, those who completed their GCSEs and went directly into work now earn slightly more than those who went on to achieve A-levels, diplomas and degrees, likely thanks to their extra years of professional experience.

When this survey was carried out, the overall number of GCSE and A-level educated survey respondents had grown by 3% and 5% respectively year-on-year, indicating that our observations of the education of PAs are representative of the wider profession: more people are entering the business support workforce without higher education certificates.

So, if fewer employers are insisting upon university educated candidates for their PA positions, what kind of experience are they looking for in its stead? We spoke with Ellena Ingles, an accomplished Assistant who left school and moved to London, working a series of odd jobs before taking an apprenticeship in project management with a charity.

“I realised that I was hugely suited to planning, adapting and delivering projects and partnerships,” Ellena told us. “After a stint as a sales agent for Foxtons and a receptionist role in a property investment office, everything started to come together. My adoration for organisation and assistance combined with my talent for managing and delivering projects to make me a brilliant PA.”

Now, Ellena’s CV brims with PA experience, including many temporary roles.

“If you want to progress fast as a PA, temping can teach you how to be flexible, adaptable and encourages you to be willing to do whatever is asked of you,” Ellena says. “I would suggest temping as part of someone’s career progression even if they eventually want to go permanent.”

Industry Insights

The PAs in our audience are spread across an array of industry sectors, but banking and financial services lays claim to the lion’s share (18%). Accounting for 10%, the industry with the second highest population of PAs is property, while 6% work in both insurance and construction. Education, public sector and advertising and media businesses each employ 5% of the Personal Assistants who responded to our survey.

Meanwhile, the marketing, luxury and retail industries each employ just 1% of Personal Assistants in the SecsintheCity community.

The banking and financial services sector pays out more to PAs than any other, with its average salaries of £41,299 perhaps pushed up by a higher than average demand for Personal Assistants. PAs working in insurance boasted pay packets of £40,857 on average while those employed in luxury businesses earned £40,000. At the other end of the pay scale, Personal Assistants working in recruitment, education, public sector and charity sectors all earn less than £31,000 per year.

Clocking In, Clocking Up: Experience & Tenure

Reassuringly, PA salaries rise in line with experience. Respondents with less than a year of experience start out their careers on around £30,000, climbing by £1,000 - £2,000 on average within the first five years. Once a PA has obtained a decade of experience, their salary will have grown by another £5,000, before jumping a further £3,000 at the 11-year mark. 84% of PAs in our audience have 6+ years’ worth of professional experience, meaning that the majority enjoy salaries at the higher end of the bracket.

Similarly, company loyalty results in steady salary growth. Starting out on around £34,600 per year, Personal Assistants who reach 10 years or more within one company can expect average annual earnings of £40,333. More often than not, however, PAs do not stick around to find out if their company rewards loyalty, with 54% having been in their current role for 3 years or less.

Evidently, prior to the outbreak of Coronavirus, the PA job market was highly fluid with ample opportunity to make frequent career moves, but how does that same market look now?

“There is still a demand for good PA candidates across the major industries,” says Tray Durrant, Executive Director at boutique secretarial and PA recruitment consultancy Bain and Gray, “and we are certainly seeing good candidates receiving more than one job offer.”

Capital in the Capital

Prior to the pandemic, 74% of all PAs in our audience said that they were working in London, perhaps as the city is a traditional base for the private individuals and global organisations - such as Barclays, Deloitte and Unilever - for whom they work. A further 13% were based elsewhere in the South East of England.

Within the Capital, 45% of PAs worked in Central, 27% in the City and 14% in West London, while 5% each worked in Canary Wharf and North London, and the remaining 4% worked in East. However, with enforced remote working causing many Assistants to realise they can do their jobs from home, we may see more of those based elsewhere in the UK taking on roles with London employers, as well as a rise in the number of PAs moving out of the capital.

Ellena Ingles quote

“Based on my own experiences, I think the number of PAs living outside of London is set to rise,” says Ellena Ingles. “After years of working and living in the city, once I became remote, I moved back to my hometown of Cheltenham in order to raise my daughter with more space and safer surroundings. If I was not remote, I would have had to stay in London due to salary differences. Being able to work remotely from your London flat pales in comparison to doing it from your garden, so it makes sense to move out if you can work from anywhere.”

With average annual salaries of £41,842, Canary Wharf was the most lucrative London location for PAs - likely due to its status as one of the city’s major financial districts - while those working in Central London were awarded £38,823 per year. In terms of salaries, East London trails behind the rest of the Capital with PAs reporting average annual earnings of £33,437. 

PA salaries in different London locations

London location Average annual salary
Canary Wharf £41,842
Central London £38,823
West London £37,844
City of London £37,818
North London £34,523
East London £33,437


Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

Less than half (45%) of the Personal Assistants in our audience would consider relocating for a career opportunity.

Among the PAs who would make the move, popular destinations of choice were largely international, including Europe and Asia at 20% and 13% respectively, followed by Australasia and the Middle East each with 9% of the share. Many PAs, it would seem, are willing to uproot their entire lives in the name of their careers, but with 10% indicating preference for a move to South East England, some appear simply to want to remove themselves slightly from the hustle and bustle of the London hub.

However, the shift to remote working caused by the events of this year may mean that relocation becomes a thing of the past. A recent survey we conducted revealed that 93% of our audience would like the opportunity to continue to work from home even once normal office working resumes. Almost half of those (46%) want to work remotely a few times per week, while a further 28% want the freedom to be based at home as often as they choose.

Clearly, COVID-19 has not just increased the number of virtual PA roles but also accelerated the community’s acceptance of this new way of working.

“PAs are known for their flexibility. A willingness to pick up your life and move to support your Principal is a much more common decision for a PA than most other roles,” Ellena tells us, “but being able to provide the same support from anywhere in the world is sure to mean the amount of relocations decreases.”

However, she is quick to point out that “the number of PAs who would relocate if needed is likely to stay the same - remote working doesn’t alter dedication.”

Executive Earnings

When asked the management level of their boss, 42% of Personal Assistants in the SecsintheCity community indicated that they support a Senior Manager or Director and another 30% told us that they work with a Manager or Head of Department. A further 17% of PAs support C-Suite Executives while the remaining 9% who disclosed this information provide their services to a Vice President.

PA salaries by who they support
Who do you support? Average annual salary
C-Suite £40,904
Manager / Head of Department £36,949
Vice President £36,800
Senior Manager / Director £35,253


Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAs operating at the highest level reported the highest salaries, with those working for CEOs, CFOs and other C-Suite Executives afforded average salaries of £40,904 per year. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the average salaries offered to PAs working at every other level show little difference. The goal, then, for PAs looking to take home the biggest pay packets, is to work up to C-Suite level.

Rewards and Remuneration

We have already established that the PAs in the SecsintheCity community are highly experienced and boast impressive educational accolades, so it only makes sense that they are a well-rewarded group.

In 2019, 57% of PAs reported a pay rise, and while the majority (77%) were offered an increase of 1-5%, a fortunate 7% saw their salaries grow by 10% or more. 57% also received a bonus, and though the majority (56%) were paid an extra 1-5%, 18% said they had topped up their base salaries with an extra 10% or more.

76% of PA respondents were provided benefits in addition to their monetary rewards. Offered to 55% of Personal Assistants, the most commonly awarded benefit was private healthcare. 27% were offered travel loans in 2019, though it remains to be seen which perks employers will offer in its stead as the number of PAs operating remotely continues to rise.

When our survey was carried out prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, 46% of PAs were offered remote and flexible working options, meaning that many of those in the SecsintheCity audience were well placed to tackle the months of remote working that were to come.

Ethnic Equity

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 87% of the UK population is white British, meaning that the 15% of PAs in our audience with BAME backgrounds have fair representation. Despite this, closer inspection of survey data revealed significant pay discrepancies between respondents of different ethnic backgrounds.

Equal pay

As demonstrated in the below table, the average annual earnings of a PA from a white background are £37,316; 6% more than the amount offered to those of black, African, Caribbean or black British descent, and 8% more than those with an Asian or Asian black background. Overall, white PAs earn 7% more than those of any other ethnicity.

PA salaries by ethnicity
Ethnicity Average annual salary
Asian / Asian black £34,347
Black / African / Caribbean / Black British £35,147
Mixed / Multiple ethnic groups £34,615
White £37,316


Interestingly, some of the organisations and individuals who employ the PAs in our audience appear to be recognising these inequalities and taking steps to rectify them.

For example, 87% of Personal Assistants with an Asian or Asian black background received a pay rise in 2019, compared to the 58% of white respondents whose salaries grew in the same time frame. Further still, 40% of those PAs received a rise of 3-10%, which is higher than in any other ethnic group.

65% of PAs with Asian and Asian black backgrounds received bonuses in 2019 and 34% of those were offered an extra 6-10% on top of their base salaries, meaning bonuses were more lucrative for these PAs than those in any other ethnic group.

While pay rises (50%) and bonuses (41%) were less commonplace among black, African, Caribbean and black British Personal Assistants, this group was home to the highest number of benefits recipients. 88% of these PAs reported a range of perks, half of whom benefit from private healthcare while 26% receive childcare support.

Some employers, it seems, are addressing and attempting to amend race-related pay disparities by handing out a selection of raises and rewards, but until PAs of minority backgrounds are afforded equal pay, true equity among Personal Assistants will not be achieved.

The Rise of the Multi-Boss Role

42% of the PAs in the SecsintheCity community now support four people or more, all the while remaining on the same level of pay as the 22% who work on a one-to-one basis with their principal. The average salary for the 78% of PAs who support more than one person is £36,559 - 2% lower than the earnings (£37,317) of a single support role. While this difference may be minimal, it underlines the irrefutable fact that more PAs are supporting more people for no more money than those who report to just one boss.

Multiple bosses

These multi-support roles appear to be more prominent in certain industries, with the banking and finance sector accounting for 16%, a further 10% found in the legal industry and 6% in property. Banking and finance is also home to the highest number of single support roles, but less heavily weighted at 10%. Meanwhile, a further 10% of one-to-one PA roles are found in the education sector, 8% in property and 7% each in advertising/media, hospitality and the public sector.

Aside from industry differences, there are few discernible distinctions between the characteristics of single and multi-support roles.

For example, 73% of those with more than three bosses support either Managers, Heads of Departments, Senior Managers or Directors, which makes sense given that C-Suite and Vice President support roles are more likely to demand one-to-one assistance. However, only 24% of single support roles are with C-Suite Executives and just 14% are with Vice Presidents.

58% of multi-boss PAs reported a pay rise in 2019, as did 55% of those with just one boss. 76% of those assisting several managers received benefits, but so did 77% of single support Assistants. In fact, the only area of remuneration where multi-boss PAs are offered greater rewards than their single-support colleagues is in bonuses. 60% are offered a bonus on top of their base income, compared to the 49% of PAs with one boss who are offered the same.

Overall, there seems to be little difference between the PAs who choose to take on multi-boss roles and those who assist a single individual, which may work in favour of employers looking for cost-cutting business support solutions in a post-COVID world. At the moment, however, Tray Durrant says that “Bain and Gray is still recruiting 1:1 as much as we were pre-COVID.”

Facing the Future

More so than any other in recent memory, 2020 has been a year of sustained chaos, uncertainty and volatility for all types of professionals and organisations in every industry sector. Maintaining their reputation as adaptable, flexible and talented professionals, PAs have weathered the challenges of this year as they always do; with grace, resilience and decorum.

It looks like multi-support roles are here to stay as PAs in the SecsintheCity community embrace the challenges of these positions with open arms, but employers need to figure out what it takes to retain their talented, experienced Assistants for more than just a few years. An even more important and urgent focus for employers in the coming year must be the pursuit of equal pay for Personal Assistants of every ethnicity. Extra benefits are nice, but they will not suffice.

Weathered

“We can see that growth industries in the current climate are the ones you would expect,” Tray told us. “We have seen an increase in the requirements for PA, EA and business support roles in healthcare, tech industries, private households and boutique financial services.”

Clearly, despite an onslaught of Coronavirus related redundancies, the pandemic has also been responsible for the creation of jobs in several sectors. With any luck, the PA job market will continue to recover, though it remains to be seen whether Assistants will follow in Ellena’s footsteps, migrating away from the capital while retaining their lucrative City salaries.

“We do expect to see more candidates working ever more flexibly,” said Tray when we asked how the pandemic will continue to impact the profession. “This was a trend that had been increasing over the past 12 months or so prior to COVID-19.”

Through the close of 2020 and into the new year, many businesses will have to continue to change the way they operate. Whether you are spearheading the implementation of long-term remote working at your firm, working with cross-departmental colleagues to create a COVID-secure workplace or onboarding at a new job from your kitchen table, Personal Assistants around the world will continue to be impacted by the fallout of this year while driving the solutions for those very same problems.

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