How to Gain Certain Skills in an Odd Workplace
September 25, 2015 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm an admin assistant looking for other admin work, and I've realized that my not knowing how to make travel arrangements or schedule things on Outlook is taking me out of the running for a lot of jobs. I'll never be able to learn how to do either at my current job for a variety of reasons. How do I fix this?

Apologies in advance for the length. Since this is an anonymous post I want to give as much info as possible.

I'm an administrative assistant, and I've been looking for other admin jobs. I've had a few recruiters reach out to me on LinkedIn regarding other opportunities, and I would contact them and send them my resume. Upon interviewing, a few of them would ask if I had experience making travel arrangements or scheduling, usually on Outlook. I would say no, because I haven't. (Outlook is listed in the section of my resume that has all of the software I am proficient at, though my experience with that is admittedly limited to email.) I usually would never get a call back. One recruiter, who I'll call X, told me because I was "light" in those skills that she had nothing for me.

I would like very much to rectify this. The problem is, my job currently does not allow for it. I work for the state, and since it's very bureaucratic, it's very unlikely that I'll move up or do anything beyond the scope of my current duties anytime soon. Someone else currently does the calendaring, and she's very unlikely to leave. As for the travel arrangement part...well, we're also in the middle of a budget crisis, so no one is doing much traveling, and those who do make the arrangements themselves. For various reasons, I can't exactly come to my coworkers for advice about this.

I'm not sure what to do. I guess my problem is twofold.

1. How do I learn how to make travel arrangements and schedule things? Which websites are good?
2. Once I learn these skills, how do I put them on a resume to make myself seem more marketable despite the fact that I haven't actually had any experience doing these things? I've made travel arrangements for my own trips, and I told X that, but it apparently wasn't good enough. Do I just lie to recruiters from now on?

I've been thinking that once I learn these skills, I could maybe resubmit my resume to these recruiters, particularly X, and show them that I can be considered for positions that call for that. How do I do this?

Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Does your workplace use Outlook for calendar information, or a different program? How do the folks who travel get reimbursed?

I suspect you may be able to acquire experience by helping your coworkers become more organized. For example, if you fill out your own Outlook calendar and persuade your coworkers to share their calendars with you, you could become the person who always knows who is available for a meeting. Similarly, if you help people file for travel reimbursement, you could become expert on travel regulations.
posted by yarntheory at 9:41 PM on September 25, 2015

You might find an account at useful, especially for getting a handle on more advanced functions of software you have access to. I have had workplaces with institutional accounts before because it does offer so many tutorials on so many subjects.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:04 PM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to the bureaucratic angle (my field is the opposite of that), but one thing I've learned is that at least half of "developing new skills" is watching other people do the thing you will eventually do, asking questions, and understanding how it works in a thorough way, before you are tasked with it yourself.

For example, scheduling. My field doesn't use Outlook so much, but we have specific ways of managing and spreading word about the daily and weekly schedules. I have spent years watching others wrangle this, so I know generally how it's done and what the workflow for that is. I know what software to use, what time of day to send out the relevant emails, who to inquire with, etc. Once or twice I have been asked to handle some part of this, in an emergency. I have asked questions of the relevant individuals, with an eye towards someday getting a promotion and having this task on my plate. (In my field it is assumed that talented people eventually move up.) So I'm dead certain that, if I were interviewing for a promotion, I would 100% be able to handle all of the scheduling needs. I could do it without blinking. Despite never actually being held responsible for all of it in a routine way, yet.

Can you start being proactive in this way? Open your eyes and ears. Watch what your superiors do. Notice what tasks are on their plates, and how they work. Get a sense of what their workload is like and how specifically each of those tasks gets handled. If it's a matter of learning a new type of software, do some reading on your own time or maybe even see if you can play around with it privately.

Also, in terms of how to convey that you have these skills despite not being formally tasked with them, I tend to include this type of information in a cover letter. Especially if the job listing mentions specific tasks I know I can do, but which aren't on my resume in the form of previous experience.
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 PM on September 25, 2015

Are you willing to do volunteer work? Some organizations are very happy to accept part-time admin support and they would probably be receptive to helping you build your skills.
posted by rpfields at 2:20 AM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I received an answer about this in a question I asked a couple of years back. The comment is here. The whole thread is good as far as advancing in an admin assistant role, though not as specific to your question.

Within a year of posting that question, I was able to move up at my job into a non-admin role in marketing. Within the first 3 months of this new role my department had to travel together, and my boss just offhand asked me to make the travel arrangements. Ha. So that's how I ultimately got experience in that. She never even asked me if I knew how. I just went through Expedia.

We always travel coach so making arrangements has been simple. If your goal is to work for an executive I would also make sure you know how to do things like apply frequent flyer miles, take advantage of upgrades, change flights at the last minute, order a car to/from the airport at all legs of the trip, and create an itinerary of the arrangements for your exec. Also I'm pretty sure our executive admin makes most of the travel arrangements using a travel agency so maybe know how to navigate that as well. I'm pretty sure you could learn all of this by Googling.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:17 AM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you've made your own travel arrangements you can totally say you know how to make travel arrangements. It's all the same thing. It's actually easier in many workplaces, because they want you to use a travel agent - all you have to do is pick up the phone and call someone to do it for you. Outlook scheduling is basically nothing, too - it's just checking multiple people's calendars and making sure everyone is available at the same time, then sending an email.

In other words: You can definitely already do this stuff. Especially if you're a good and experienced administrative assistant. When this question comes up in interviews, you say, "I don't have the opportunity to do this in my current role because of the way the department is structured, but I'm familiar with the skills and am confident it wouldn't be a problem." Both of those things take the same skills you're already using in everything else you do: organization, flexibility, communication. Work on emphasizing how your current skills and duties use the same skills you'd need to do these things. Rather than "I haven't done this" - say "Yes, I'm comfortable doing this" instead. It's not a lie. These are basic things that anyone with an organized brain can pick up very easily.

And if you end up with an admin job requiring you to do either and have questions, you can totally memail me. I've been an executive assistant for fifteen years. :)
posted by something something at 5:19 AM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Someone else currently does the calendaring, and she's very unlikely to leave.

The situation you described sounds like there is only one person with sole responsibility for scheduling events/meetings. What happens when she goes on vacation? Who performs the scheduling duties? I can see how managers would agree to do those tasks themselves if that person is only out of the office for a day or two. What happens when she takes a two-week vacation or sick leave?

If there is currently no back-up person performing the scheduling duties, perhaps you could volunteer to be her back-up. Advantages that your supervisor might appreciate:

- There would be no gap in coverage for scheduling duties. Things would still run smoothly for the managers/department.
- You are showing a willingness to learn new things and expand your skill set.
- The person currently doing scheduling would not have to worry about coverage should she need to be out of the office. Perhaps there is a skill YOU have that she would like to learn.

This proposal could be a win-win for everyone.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 2:42 PM on September 26, 2015

You go through an online tutorial on say outlook scheduling, you Google a few pages, you watch some videos, you then say, "Yes, I am quite confident in doing X. I can x, y and z in Outlook. Part of the reason I am looking for new job opportunities is because my skills in that area aren't really being used in my current position."

For anything you have heard of, but don't use at the moment, you say, "I am familiar with Z, but don't use it in my current role. I am quite confident I would be able to handle it, because of my experience in etc, related areas.".

Anything the recruiter says that you are unfamiliar with, or that isn't on your CV, go Google. Get a sense of how long it would take you to get to basic proficiency. A one page quick start guide? A few hours tutorial? A several days, weeks or months course?
If it is on the low time scale end, tada! That is something you can talk about confidently in future.
If a recruiter asks about something specific, feel free to say to them, "Look, can I get back to you in a few hours on that? I know a little about *related area*, and I want to make sure I have the relevant skills in X before I feel confident about putting myself forward for this role."

Then you frantically Google, and and if you do feel like you could pull it off, you call then back and go with, I would be confident, blah blah blah.

Further, whenever they mention skills they are specifically looking for, or are in high demand, you say, "For this role, would you like me to send you a more tailored CV, directly highlighting my skills in X?" Blah blah, there is only so much room on a CV." Make it clear you will do some work to make it easier for them to put you forward for roles.
All stuff recruiters want to hear. Basically, you want to make their job easy on them, and you let them know that you will research any hints they get about job requirements, so you will be able to talk confidently at the interview, and that you will look up and Google the company/employer and be able to talk confidently about why you want to work for them.

If you are on the phone, they give any indication that they are willing to send you a job description, and you are feeling nervous about how the phone call is going, tell them you are a bit busy at the moment, and could they send the job description through, and when would be a good time to call them back to discuss it?
You can near salvage a bad phone call like that, by giving yourself a bit of time to read the description, research, think about what they want to hear, and bringing your A game when you call them back.

Basically, experience doesn't mean "Are you doing it in your current job?", it means, could you do it? Self study is fine, and don't mislead about where the experience is from, but you don't have to specifically clarify which bits of your experience came from which work place or personal experience.

Good luck!
posted by Elysum at 5:25 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have access to a copy of Outlook, it would take about three minutes to learn how to schedule things. I just worked it out the other day.

As with most software on a PC: when in doubt, right click. (Sometimes I just right click because I'm too lazy to use menus.)
posted by jb at 6:17 PM on September 26, 2015

Can you ask to shadow people in your current organisation for a day? e.g. a few hours with the person currently scheduling travel, a few hours with an executive PA, etc.
posted by dvrmmr at 7:28 AM on September 27, 2015

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