How to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

Do You Have What It Takes for a Career in HR?

Prepare for a career in Human Resources by taking these steps. A man and a woman interview a woman.
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Liking people is not the only qualification for pursuing a career in human resources (HR). It helps, but it is insufficient for success. HR jobs and careers continue to grow in sophistication and employer's expectations are evolving.

No longer is the HR department successful if it works with finance to pay employees, offers benefits that retain employees, shields the employer from lawsuits, and handles employee relations over mostly grievances.

In fact, these tasks of HR staff, while important and needed, are not how an organization judges the effectiveness of its HR function.

Employee recruitment and selection, employee development, employee retention, organizational culture, and a positive, motivating work environment are critical to business success. They now seek HR's leadership and guidance. Without strong contributions in each of these areas, HR departments are contributing less than the organization needs from them.

In HR, as in any other career, some minimum requirements exist to enter the field. But with many companies, you have the opportunity to continue to develop these skills and experiences on the job with the chance for eventual promotion to a higher level role within the HR department.

Preparing for a Career in Human Resources

In smaller companies, one or a few staff members may wear many hats and do HR generalist work with responsibility for all aspects of human resources.

In larger companies, an HR Director or Vice President might head up multiple departments led by managers who specialize in areas such as training and development, compensation and benefits, or labor relations.

Because of the variety of positions in the field, you have a great opportunity to find a work setting that suits your skills and strengths, your preference for company size, or your desire to specialize or generalize.

To prepare yourself for a successful career in human resources, consider pursuing degrees and qualifications that fit the role. Develop the skills that every successful HR staff member needs.

Degrees That Complement a Career in Human Resources

The Occupational Outlook Handbook believes that HR career and job opportunities will continue to be most available for people who keep these three key points in mind:

  1. Educational backgrounds of HR workers vary considerably and reflect the diversity of duties and levels of responsibility. (They are also dependant on where you want to live and work and any competition that may exist in that marketplace.)
  2. Certifications and previous experience are assets for most HR specialties and are essential for more advanced positions, including managers, arbitrators, and mediators
  3. Having both a college degree and an earned certification can open the door to the best job opportunities 

Many colleges and universities have educational programs that lead to degrees in human resources, HR specialties such as training and development, or business. Depending on the school you choose, you will find courses that lead to a career in HR management in departments such as business, education, instructional design or technology, organization development, human services, communication, and public administration.

Complementary Coursework for HR Positions

People who want to work successfully in Human Resources should take courses in business, social sciences such as psychology and sociology, and finance. The Occupational Outlook Handbook specifically recommends:

"Most prospective human resources specialists should take courses in compensation, recruitment, training and development, and performance appraisal, as well as courses in principles of management, organizational structure, and industrial psychology."

Other relevant courses for students who have an interest in human resources might include business administration, public administration, psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and statistics.

 

Growing Importance of a Graduate Degree

If you are considering a career in human resources, you need to know that many professionals choose to pursue a Masters degree in human resources, organization development, business administration (MBA), and others. Increasingly, a Masters degree is required if you expect to be competitive for the best, most desirable, high-paying HR jobs.

Some HR professionals say that the Masters is the new Bachelor's degree in the field. And, because of the challenge of employment law, more human resources professionals are obtaining law degrees or transferring into HR from the legal profession.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook:

"Many labor relations jobs require graduate study in industrial or labor relations. A strong background in industrial relations and law is highly desirable for contract negotiators, mediators, and arbitrators; in fact, many people in these specialties are lawyers. A background in law also is desirable for employee benefits managers and others who must interpret the growing number of laws and regulations. A master's degree in human resources, labor relations, or in business administration with a concentration in human resources management is highly recommended for those seeking general and top management positions."

Top Qualifications for HR Job Candidates

While education is important, your other qualification and skills can be equally as important as your coursework and degree. Some of the key skills and personal qualifications you will need to work successfully in human resources include the following.

  • Effective interpersonal skills so that you can interact successfully with all of the employees in the organization
  • Knowledge of computers and information systems since HRIS has become central in documentation and employee self-service.
  • Effective spoken and written communication
  • Comfort with diverse people who have various educational levels, cultural heritages, religious practices, ages, work experience, and opinions
  • Understanding of statistics and finance
  • Conflict resolution skills to both initiate and mediate workplace conflicts
  • Able to set and accomplish goals and work as a member of a team
  • Demonstrate a high level of integrity, confidentiality, and fairness

Entry-Level Job Opportunities and Gaining Experience 

It is difficult to break into a career in human resources above the entry level. Successive positions at the HR generalist and manager level, or above, require the knowledge and experience obtained in entry-level positions.

Occasionally, experienced individuals who have held managerial-type positions in business, government, or the military might be considered for positions above entry level. If you fall into that camp, you might consider obtaining certifications or taking coursework related to your area of interest to further prepare yourself for a career in HR.

If you are seeking an entry-level HR position, try to obtain some experience while you are in college as an intern. Even part-time work or an internship in other fields adds to your potential as a candidate. Leadership roles in clubs, volunteer experiences, club or college sports, and real-world projects for a company add to your credibility as a candidate.

Hopefully, this information has prepared you to pursue a career in HR. It's a rewarding field with all sorts of benefits both emotionally and in terms of stability and good income. Seek additional information from your college placement offices and counselors. Or, talk with people working in HR where you want to live and work.

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