Virtual assistant industry taking shape

Two years ago, there was no such thing. Today, thousands of independent contractors call themselves virtual assistants. While many are former brick-and-mortar executive and administrative assistants, other types of workers are standing under the VA umbrella - IT workers, paralegals, even some accountants and controllers. Some are military spouses, many were recently laid off, others juggle full-time jobs while trying to launch VA practices in the off hours - and all are working from home.

Virtual assistants rely heavily on VA industry organizations, Web portals and clearing houses to learn the business, gain support and find clients. At this early stage, at least two nonprofit U.S.-based industry associations have gained decent momentum: the International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA) and the International Association of Virtual Office Assistants (IAVOA). There's also Staffcentrix, the private company that founded the industry in 1999 and spun off its nonprofit arm IVAA last year. The three step all over each other, offering members education, certification, peer mentoring, community features (chats, bulletin boards), downloadable business forms, conferences and client leads. The IAVOA offers discounted Web hosting and ISP (Internet service provider) services as well. The good news is that membership to each is cheap: US$30 to $50 per year, so most VAs belong to more than one.

Philosophies vary, if only slightly, among the groups. While everyone agrees that the role of certification is to police the industry and increase the quality of work, the IVAA believes VA training and certification must be skills based, and offers an exam that tests proficiency in a number of areas. "People think if they have a computer and can type, they can be a VA. There's a lot more to it. We do a lot of coaching on how to work alone, remotely, and encourage VAs to get certified," explains IVAA President and VA Terri Lee Romaine.

But IAVOA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Alfred Gandee - a retired army sergeant major and VA - believes certification should be based solely on experience, and as such his organization checks applicants' work history, former employees and references.

How many VAs are there today? Since groups won't share membership data, there's no central registry of VAs to survey. Gandee says his group claims a few hundred members earning anywhere from $8 to $50 per hour, who work for as many as four clients at once. Romaine's group has about 300 members, most of whom are just starting out. Staffcentrix claims 1,075 worldwide members and released a survey in January that sheds some light on VA demographics. While only 12 percent responded, the company claims membership has "nearly doubled" since the survey was completed.

The full survey is available at www.staffcentrix.com, it's interesting to note that 97 percent of its members are female; 36 percent have been in the business less than a year; 40 percent also work full or part time for an employer; 50 percent are work-at-home parents; 36 percent are military spouses; and 14 percent live in rural or underemployed areas. Most common professional services offered: 64 percent desktop publishing; 56 percent Web research; 73 percent word processing. Services range from technical writing, systems management, marketing and advertising, call center support, programming, graphic design, database management and academic writing.

IAVOA and Staffcentrix each have big plans that could be very good for telework. Gandee is launching a company that will bid for large military and private sector contracts and farm them out to IAVOA-certified members. And this January, Staffcentrix will launch the first of three initial pilot programs to help military spouses launch VA practices on Cannon Airforce Base in Clovis, New Mexico.

In time, the initiative will "involve several hundred thousand military spouses and will dramatically change the landscape of VA and probably telework in general," Staffcentrix CEO Michael Haaren says.

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