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Should I Get an HR Certificate Before a Degree In Human Resources?

A woman sitting behind a laptop speaking to a man about HR

If you aspire to play a significant role in the development of an organization’s workforce, then a career in human resources could be right for you. But when you’re preparing for the HR field, should you get a human resource certificate before a degree in human resources?

When it comes to your education, there’s no one right answer. Workers with a bachelor's degree in another field might earn a certificate in human resources to build industry-specific skills before committing to a full degree program. Others might jump right into a four-year HR degree.

The key is to find the educational path that supports your career goals and prepares you to enter a field that is evolving all the time, said Deborah Gogliettino, associate dean for human resources at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

“The HR practitioner is the person who’s become more influential in helping businesses address complex workforce issues and policies, manage talent issues and be the critical and thoughtful voice at the table to help business leaders decipher what is going on in the world,” Gogliettino said.

Are you ready to join the growing HR field? Then it’s important to explore what an HR certification or degree program is really like.

What is a Human Resource Degree?

Whether you earn certificates in human resources or a human resources degree online, you’ll gain key business skills to manage the evolving HR needs of today’s workforce.

In a typical HR degree program, you’ll explore topics such as employee safety, labor relations, workforce management and benefits and compensation. You’ll also learn the basics of how organizations recruit, manage and retain a skilled workforce.

Deborah Gogliettino with the text Deborah Gogliettino

It’s this combination of business skills and human resource fundamentals that makes a certificate in human resources or an HR degree so valuable, said Gogliettino.

“In today’s world, you need to have specific training in human resources, because the issues we’re dealing with in the workforce are very complex,” Gogliettino said.

So, which is right for you: a certificate in human resources or a human resources degree? The answer will depend on your goals and the HR jobs you hope to get in the future.

Getting Started With a Certificate in Human Resources

Do you already have a bachelor’s degree and want to change careers to human resources? Or, are you still exploring your college degree options? Either way, an undergraduate HR certificate could be a good fit.

A college certificate is an educational credential that can provide foundational learning in a specific field, without committing to a full degree.

With a certificate in human resources, your courses may include subjects like staffing and talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, labor relations, HR strategy and more.

If you're coming to human resources with a bachelor's degree in a different field, earning an HR certificate could help you get your foot in the door.

With a certification in human resources in addition to a bachelor's degree, you could land a job as a human resources assistant. Human resource assistants keep personnel records, track employee data and may also prepare and file employment records. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), human resource assistants earned a median annual salary of $44,170 in 2020.

If you want to expand your role in human resources beyond an entry-level position, earning a bachelor’s degree in the field is the best next step. And with a certificate in human resources already completed, you’ll give yourself a jumpstart toward a four-year degree.

“You’d have those foundational pieces already, so you could move through the program quicker and get to your goal sooner,” said Gogliettino.

Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resources

With a bachelor’s degree in human resources, you can explore leadership, motivation, HR policy, compensation and benefits, HR strategy, talent development and more.

You’ll gain key business acumen and learn how to apply your learning to real-world situations. Your education could also help you prepare for a professional certification in human resources.

SNHU’s human resources bachelor’s degree, for example, aligns with the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) HR Curriculum Guidebook and Templates, and could help you gain the knowledge needed for SHRM certifications for HR.

With an HR bachelor’s degree, you can also work toward higher-level positions in the field or begin to specialize in a specific area of human resources.

Some of the jobs available to HR degree holders include:

  • Human Resources Specialist: You could recruit and interview job candidates, place workers in jobs and take on other HR duties, such as compensation, training or employee relations. According to BLS, the median annual wage for HR specialists was $63,490 in 2020. Jobs for HR specialists are projected to grow 10% from 2020 to 2030.
  • Training and Development Specialist: You could help plan and manage employee training programs for an organization. According to BLS data, training and development specialists earned a median annual salary of $62,700 in 2020. Jobs in the field are projected to grow 11% by 2030.
  • Compensation and Benefits Specialist: You could oversee wage and benefits programs for an organization and evaluate job descriptions to help set wages. Compensation and benefits specialists earned a median annual wage of $67,190 in 2020, according to BLS data, and jobs in the field are projected to grow 10% from 2020 to 2030.

Advancing Your Career With a Graduate-Level Human Resources Certificate

Once you’ve earned an HR degree and are working in the field, earning a graduate-level human resources certification can help you explore more advanced career options.

Gogliettino said a graduate-level HR certificate could be a good option for someone who thinks they want to move to a management position but is still exploring their options.

“A graduate certificate gives you some of that experience and insight into what that looks like,” Gogliettino said. “So it can help you figure out what you want to do before you do the full (master’s) degree program.”

With a graduate certificate in human resources you can explore the more strategic side of HR, including labor relations, human resources ethics, human behavior and change management. This education could help you start working toward more advanced HR jobs, such as a human resources manager.

According to BLS, human resources managers plan and direct the administrative functions of an organization, including recruitment, employee relations, hiring and training. They may also consult with top executives on strategic planning related to the workforce. HR managers earned a median annual wage of $121,220 in 2020 and jobs for HR managers are projected to grow 9% by 2030.

Becoming an HR Leader With a Master’s Degree in Human Resources

If you want to become a leader in HR, then a master’s degree in human resources will be a valuable credential. With a master’s degree, you can be a change agent for an organization and its workforce, consulting with company leadership to solve workforce challenges and shape company culture.

“At the very top levels, your knowledge has to be very, very extensive because you’ll be spending your time in strategy and giving HR direction to the organization, developing the senior team and being that moral voice around the table,” said Gogliettino.

A master’s level human resources degree can help you gain key knowledge in areas such as ethics, legal practice, talent development and more. You’ll learn to approach HR initiatives from a strategic, data-driven perspective and understand how HR impacts an organization as a whole.

If you want to expand your role in HR while building a strong foundation business administration skills, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Human Resources could help you prepare to lead people, organizations and organizational change.

Jobs for workers with a master’s degree in human resources include high-level management positions and even C-suite level executive jobs, including:

  • Compensation and Benefits Manager: You could coordinate and oversee an organization’s pay and benefits structure, monitoring competitive wage rates and ensuring that compensation plans comply with regulations. According to BLS data, compensation and benefits managers earned a median salary of $125,130 in 2020. Jobs for these HR managers are projected to grow 4% from 2020 to 2030.
  • Training and Development Manager: You could assess employee training needs, ensure training aligns with company goals and implement training programs. According to BLS, training and development managers earned a median annual wage of $115,640 in 2020, and jobs in the field are projected to grow 11% by 2030.
  • Chief Human Resources Officer: You could work as a top executive in an organization, overseeing strategic workforce planning and advising company leadership on HR subjects. According to BLS data, top executives earned a median annual wage of $185,950 in 2020. Employment of top executives is projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030.

Is a Career in HR Right for You?

No matter what type of HR degree program you pursue, Gogliettino said you can expect to spend a lot of time developing key soft skills. These include problem solving, critical thinking, relationship building, project management and leadership development.

If you want to advance in an HR career these skills will be especially critical, particularly as the field focuses less on employee paperwork and more on the future of the workforce.

So how can you know if HR is the right field for you? It all comes down to what drives you, said Gogliettino.

In today's changing HR landscape, it's important to go into the field with an interest in not only the day to day operations of managing employees, but the overall success of an organization too.

“In the old days people thought of going into HR because they love people," said Gogliettino. "Today, you want to go into HR because you want to solve problems and solve those problems for the benefit of the workforce and the benefit of the business."

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.