As of June 1, 2012, the annual unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. In uncertain economic times, people need to think outside the box when it comes to procuring employment. Many people will attempt to start a home-based business. Between 1995 and 2011, the number of home-based workers increased by 37.1 percent, bachelor degree holders being the majority. One rapidly growing segment of the work-at-home industry is the virtual online assistant, or VOA. A VOA is a home-based professional who provides administrative, technical or creative services for their clients.

The Upside of the Industry

There are many benefits to being a VOA, both for the client and the employee. Because a VOA is a contract employee, the client does not have to offer benefits, pay employment related taxes or workers' compensation, or provide a physical workspace or equipment. The VOA has an extremely short commute to work, does not have to pay for childcare or a professionals' wardrobe, and has a relatively flexible schedule. Most clients assign work by the day or week and estimate the amount of hours in which the VOA must complete the assignment. The VOA can then work on the assignment at any hour of the day or night, given its completion in the contracted amount of time.

Getting Started

Most clients require at least five years of verifiable experience. Letters of recommendation from former employers are helpful, along with an impeccable resume. Many VOA's have their own websites showing their résumé, recommendation letters, client evaluations and a short bio (often with a picture). This is a great way to solicit new clients, especially for a more seasoned VOA.

But what about the person who is just starting? There are many online VOA agencies cropping up, such as or A potential VOA can post their résumé on the site and apply for assignments posted on the job boards. Each posting on the  job board contains the assignments length, rate of pay, and any specific skill and technical or equipment requirements.

The average new VOA is usually actively seeking assignments for two to three months before obtaining their first, so patience is a virtue. Once the initial assignment is complete, the client will provide a written evaluation. Don't be timid; ask permission to post the evaluation on your website for potential clients to view.

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Having the Right Equipment

The proper equipment to perform effectively as a VOA is important. Of course, a computer is a must, equipped with a high-speed internet connection. Some companies require a desktop model, but most clients are more concerned with the speed of the connection over the model of PC. A landline telephone can also be required for some assignments, but most clients prefer a virtual voicemail/phone/fax system such as eVoice. Also needed are a webcam and telephone headset for certain positions. A business email address, easily obtainable through Google or Yahoo! for a nominal monthly fee, are a must, as they have tracking and reporting features not available through personal email. And remember, the cost of equipment and online business systems is a tax write-off!

The Downside

Whether working as an independent contractor or for a virtual temp agency, there is a downside to the industry. Assignments, especially in the beginning of a VOA career, can come slowly; there will be gaps in work assignments as well. A steady income is not a given in this field. Self-employment means the loss of comprehensive health benefits, a pension plan, paid time off and a regular schedule. Many parents believe that being a VOA means not having to pay childcare and this is partially true. However, depending on the age and temperament of the child, some VOA's may have to consider childcare to ensure the accurate completion of assignments. Also, a credit check and criminal background check are completed by prospective clients, so anyone with skeletons in the closet need not apply.

Becoming a VOA is a potentially lucrative venture. Just remember; be patient, prepared and always professional when dealing with clients. More and better opportunities will present themselves as long as you follow these rules of thumb.