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Virtual work’s time has come

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The Internet, e-mail and Web cameras allow people to socialize in virtual chat rooms, get an education from an online university and hold business meetings without ever leaving the office.

So do you even need to be at the office?

Barbara Speer of Turlock, Calif., doesn't think so. An administrative assistant for 28 years, she started a business offering her skills as a virtual assistant.

She's virtual, as in most of her clients will see only her e-mail. Speer just hung out her shingle last month, so she doesn't have any clients yet.

When she does find some, Speer will do most of the same tasks she learned on previous jobs: write letters, create presentations, organize meetings, make travel arrangements and collect information for reports.

"I can do (from home) almost anything I can do in the office, except make coffee, and I can have that delivered," Speer said.

She's joining a small but growing field of business owners who offer administrative support services. The virtual assistant concept isn't really new. Companies have hired contract workers to complete office work, usually for special projects, for decades.

"It does seem that it is definitely a trend, and it seems more people are entering the field," said Rick Stroud of the International Association of Administrative Professionals. "I think it is certainly a viable career choice. Some futurists say we may all be independent contractors in the future."

About 80 percent of administrative work will be outsourced in 2009, according to a 1999 study by the association's marketing research arm.

Unlike temporary employees, virtual assistants offer a continuous working relationship with their clients. And virtual assistants may be attractive to small-business owners who need office help but can't afford a full-time employee to do the work.

The salary for a virtual assistant is not as costly as paying for a full-time employee and providing health benefits, workers compensation insurance, office equipment and work space, said June Hash, a home loan officer.

Hash has used virtual assistant Jacquelyn Blevins for the past four months. She pays Blevins $30 an hour — the going rate for virtual assistants — and usually has about 20 hours of work a week for her.

"It's worth every penny," said Hash.

One of Blevins' first jobs was to send out a letter reintroducing Hash to old clients. Hash said she gained dozens of new accounts from the letter.

She has unloaded much of her paperwork on her virtual assistant. "You can't get out and get that business if you have to do all that paperwork," Hash said.

Small-business owners have many tasks that they don't need to do themselves, Blevins said. "They can delegate where they want to spend their time," said Blevins, who has been working as a virtual assistant for three years.

Entrepreneurial skills are at the heart of AssistU, an online school training virtual assistants. Both Speer and Blevins received certificates from the 20-week program, which cost $2,295 for group instruction. The classes covers topics such as accounting, business permitting and marketing. Students are required to have advanced administrative skills before they start the program.

Stacey Brice, who has been a virtual assistant since the 1980s, founded the school in 1997. She developed the certificate program following the publication of an article about her career.

"Hundreds of women came out of the woodwork asking how they can do this," Brice said. Based in Baltimore, she has had about 500 people — all but one of them women — finish her program.