December 5, 2016
What does it take to begin a career in human resources? Should you get a bachelor's or a master's in HR? Should you focus on a particular aspect of the field, like candidate recruitment or benefits administration, or try to get a general sense of everything a human resources department might do?
To see what experiences and knowledge are most helpful, you can start by considering what companies are looking for when they seek out candidates for a position in HR. As businesses compete for the best employees in every part of their operations, it's human resources professionals who figure out how to recruit and retain top performers.
"Human resources is really kind of the glue to the organization," said Lucas Croteau, owner of New Hampshire staffing agency The Wellington Group Recruiting and a Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) alum. "They keep people happy and engaged and figure out how to retain workers."
HR roles are changing rapidly, according to Deloitte's 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey. The survey found that human resources specialists are now increasingly integrated into companies' strategic planning. Rather than putting together benefits packages or screening job candidates, HR departments are often responsible for fostering teamwork and strong workplace cultures. They're also expected to use data-based methods to strengthen workers' performance and work cooperatively with other company leaders on big-picture issues that touch every part of the enterprise.
Over the coming years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that human resource specialists will need to handle increasingly complex employment laws and health insurance options. As of May 2015, BLS found that the typical human resources specialist made $58,350 a year. Meanwhile, experienced professionals who go on to become human resources managers earn a typical salary of $104,440. BLS also finds that the HR manager positions are growing particularly quickly, with an expected increase of 9% between 2014 and 2024.
When it comes to getting your foot in the door for a first position, Croteau said a bachelor's or master's in HR is a great start, but enthusiasm is also a key. "If I'm going to hire an HR professional, I'm going to hire the one that wants to be here, the one that's excited," he said. "Experience can come after in terms of the entry-level roles."
So, how do you demonstrate your excitement? Croteau said one way is to reach out to people already working in the field. Alumni networks can provide a great place to start.
Human resources managers typically have a bachelor's degree, according BLS, as well as several years of experience. Some companies may require a master's degree.
Robin Throckmorton, president of Strategic HR Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio, said even people who've never held a human resources job may have more experience than they realize. If you returned to college to get a master's in HR after working in a different capacity, it's worth considering what relevant work you did in your previous job.
"What did you do in each of your jobs that were HR related or transferable?" Throckmorton said. "If they've been in a supervisory capacity, they haven't directly done HR, but they may have had to answer benefit questions, or provided job counseling."
Throckmorton said if you've helped new employees with workplace questions, or even worked on public relations campaigns that demonstrated your communication skills, you've already got some good material for your resume and interviews. She said it's also important not to discount experience gained while taking college courses. If you did a classroom project that involved taking on a real-world problem like setting a compensation structure for a company, that's something hiring managers will want to know about.
According to Throckmorton, it can also be valuable to get a certification through a human resources association. A good time to do that can be right after finishing your master's in HR, when everything you've learned is fresh in your mind, she said.
Of course, human resources is not just a single job. While some smaller firms may have one generalist who handles everything from recruitment to benefits administration to legal issues, larger companies tend to have specialists in a variety of roles.
Croteau said he encourages people to start general and then narrow their focus. "If I'm in college, I want to get a broad picture of everything," he said. "As you get out of college, you learn a little bit more."
Throckmorton said one great first job can be a general human resources position at a company that's large enough to have a two- or three-person HR department. "If they get somewhere where there's at least one other person in HR, it can be a really good educational experience," she said.
Throckmorton said another good place to start can be in recruiting, since it's a role that involves close contact with hiring managers in various departments, as well as understanding and explaining things like company benefits to prospective employees. If you have a good grasp of all these subjects, she said, you can move into another aspect of HR or dig deeper into recruiting.
Beyond working in a company's human resources department, another option for HR professionals is taking a job with a company that specializes in outsourced functions. In fact, both Croteau's and Throckmorton's firms focus on providing services that companies don't want to handle in-house. Croteau said he chose his line of work, which focuses on recruiting candidates for open positions at a number of prominent firms in New Hampshire, because it lets him delve deeply into the needs of companies in different sectors.
"I like the aspect of being able to have a diversified day, kind of work with several clients on a daily basis," he said. "But also, I feel like I'm a strategic partner to their needs."
Croteau said individuals will want to look for work within the HR field that matches their personalities. Some people may prefer working for a specialty firm, developing a deep understanding of compensation packages and sharing that knowledge with companies. Others want to be deeply engaged in the strategic and day-to-day operations of a single company. "There's numerous options that you could go into," Croteau said. "It really just boils down to what you're looking for."
Regardless of which road you choose to go down, the first step is getting out there and showing off all that you have to offer.
Melissa Page is a higher education marketing professional and instructor. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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