I am frequently asked how to break into the Human Resources (HR) field by students, recent grads, and professionals looking to make a career transition. According to the 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in Human Resources are growing 21% faster than the average professions, so it’s no surprise that people are interested in this fast-growing field.
How does a person break into HR? In the past, people had widely divergent paths on their journey to working as a Human Resources professional. Many people “fell into” Human Resources by happenstance, and they stay because they enjoy the work. But as random as each individual career in HR seems, there are many common themes for succeeding in HR, and as the field continues to evolve, a more focused and rigorous approach is becoming a necessary precursor for success.
Common themes that emerge when you listen to stories people tell about that their finding themselves in the evolving field known as HR include:
- Started in an administrative role with a company and gradually took on more Human Resources work over time
- Worked in another role in their company, made their desire to move to HR clear to managers and HR, and applied when an opening became available;
- Worked in a specialty area of HR such as Recruiting or Compensation and wanted to learn more about the other areas within HR.
A satirical article by blogger Lance Haun (Life Between the Brackets) is entitled “Love Helping People? Don’t Go into HR”. Lance skewers the many people who say that they want to go into HR because they “like helping people”. Satisfying today’s requirements of a Human Resources professional is immensely more complicated. Liking to work with people helps, of course, but isn’t by itself a qualification for success.
If you are contemplating a career in Human Resources, you may want to consider the following advice:
1. Build Your HR Resume
Having experience in the HR field is extremely important in gaining credibility and in landing a position in the industry. Human Resources internships or volunteer experience are great options for getting an HR job on your resume. Seeking out a mentor may also be one of the best ways to insert yourself into an HR Department.
2. Coursework to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources
There are countless community colleges and undergraduate programs that directly or indirectly help to prepare one for a career in HR. Relevant coursework may include business administration, public administration, psychology, sociology, economics and statistics.
3. Graduate Programs in Human Resources
If you become serious about Human Resources as your career choice, you may want to consider a post-graduate HR degree. Because of the challenges of employment law, more HR professionals are also obtaining law degrees or transferring into the legal profession.
Cornell University’s Master of Science in Labor Relations (full disclosure: this author’s alma mater) was one of the first programs—since 1945-- and originally focused on the collective bargaining field. Today, the well-respected Cornell program offers both Industrial Relations (primarily Labor Relations) and Human Resources specializations within the MSILR degree.
Other prestigious graduate schools offering Human Resources degrees include The J. Willard and Alice Sheets Marriott School of Management (MSM), located in Provo, Utah at Brigham Young University. Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers a well-regarded Master’s degree in Human Resources and Labor Relations. Michigan State University also holds an intensive two week Human Resources academic/practitioner program, with high-potential employee/students selected specifically for this program by their employers (Yes, I attended that program as well, hey they say write what you know J).
4. Get Ready to Work!
Human Resources is neither a glamour job nor a spectator sport. On any given day, an HR professional’s job may range from discussing the interpretation around the Family and Medical Leave Act; discussing the company’s income statement at a business strategy meeting; and comforting and advising an employee’s spouse on the employee’s death, or vice versa. For a person with both smarts and empathy, HR can be a very rewarding career.
5. Establish Your Personal Human Resources Brand
Using social media such as LinkedIn, blogs, and Facebook can give a prospective HR professional a competitive edge. Social media is only one avenue of networking, and doesn't replace face to face networking; but by combining both, you can brand yourself as an HR professional. For more information about personal branding, a popular book on this topic is called Me 2.0 by personal branding guru Dan Schawbel.
Remember, perseverance pays off, sometimes when you least expect it. Best of luck and may all your HR dreams come true.