Job: Virtual assistant

The Role: The tasks assigned to a virtual assistant are similar to those of an administrative or executive assistant, only they are fulfilled remotely. As a result, virtual assistants are often hired on a per-hour basis, typically work from home and can maintain multiple clients at a time.

"The role of a virtual assistant can vary, because you can be anything from general administration to an executive administrative assistant with a specialty like medical or finance or IT," said Bobbie Racette, a former administrative and virtual assistant and the founder of Virtual Gurus, a Calgary-based virtual assistant agency. "Generally you're going to be doing a lot of e-mail management, note-taking, documentation and travel arrangements."

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Ms. Racette explains that virtual assistants can work independently or as part of an agency, and can be hired for general assistance or a niche skill such as digital marketing expertise or bookkeeping experience.

"We could probably have a four-hour conversation on the different tasks they're required to do, which is why a virtual assistant needs diverse skills and a willingness to be flexible," she said.

Salary: Virtual assistants that work independently set their own hourly rate, which Ms. Racette says typically falls between $30 and $55 per hour, depending on their level of experience and whether they have received specialized training in relevant fields. Those that work independently are also responsible for finding and managing their own clients.

Those assigned clients and tasks through an agency typically earn between $17 and $35 per hour, explained Ms. Racette.

According to PayScale.com, the average rate for a virtual assistant in Canada is $22.50 per hour.

Education: While there are no formal educational requirements for virtual assistants, those with specialized training, certification and experience can often charge more for their expertise.

"Let's say you're going to work as a real estate assistant, you're going to probably need your real estate licence in order to work with realtors," explained Ms. Racette. "If you're going to be a medical assistant, most likely you'll need a university degree or training in medical assistance or transcription services, so it depends on your target niche as a virtual assistant."

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While certain fields have educational or licensing requirements, Ms. Racette says that most clients hire virtual assistants based on prior experience, not education.

Job prospects: The job prospects for virtual assistants are strong and growing in Canada as a result of a number of trends. The rapid advancement of communication technology and remote working tools has significantly lowered the barrier to entry, while the trend towards outsourcing tasks to contractors and freelancers has made Canadian organizations more open to the concept than ever before.

Furthermore, with less access to traditional office resources, the growing startup, freelance and contract work force in Canada is increasingly hiring virtual assistants to help fill the gap.

"There's a of people looking for virtual assistants, and in order to jump into it, you just have to get set up and go for it," said Ms. Racette.

Challenges: The two greatest challenges most virtual assistants face are both related to client retention, according to Ms. Racette. One is the high potential for conflict that inevitably results from working remotely on a per-hour basis, as it's difficult to verify the number of hours worked.

"Administrative assistants are also often at the bottom of the barrel, and so if your boss or client is having a bad day, you're going to be the one feeling the wrath of it," she said. "You've got to retain your clients, so you've got to keep your composure, which can be difficult in those situations."

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Why they do it: Virtual assistants enjoy the high degree of autonomy and flexibility the job offers. Those that pursue additional training in niche fields are also often passionate about supporting that industry.

Misconceptions: The biggest misconception about virtual assistants is that they charge for hours they're not working, which Ms. Racette says is a big problem in an industry that depends on maintaining trust with clients.

"Clients are always going to have an issue with time, so before you start doing it make sure you know how you're going to manage your time, how you're going to bill the client and how you're going to show them how you're spending your time," she said.