How to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

Mary Gormandy White
HR Career Planning

Preparing to work as a human resource (HR) management professional requires a commitment to developing expertise specific to the profession as well as skills and knowledge specific to many different aspects of personnel management. While there is not a specific academic or licensure requirement to gain entry to this field, employers typically require a combination of formal education, certification and/or practical experience when hiring professional-level HR practitioners.

Preparing to Enter the HR Field

Higher Education

Unless you have significant professional experience in an area that is closely related to human resource management (such as operations management, accounting, etc.), it is not likely that an employer will consider you for a career-track position in HR if you don't have at least a bachelor's degree.

Undergraduate

Your Bachelor's degree does not have to be specific to human resource management, so you may not need to return to school if you already have a degree in a different area, and you don't necessarily have to major in HR even if you are planning to enroll in college for the first time. Working as an HR professional requires knowledge across a variety of disciplines.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests "a balanced curriculum that includes the behavioral sciences, social sciences, and the liberal arts," as well as "courses that develop oral and written communication skills." SHRM indicates that it's essential for students who want to go into HR to take courses in:

  • Economics
  • General business
  • Business and labor law
  • Accounting
  • Marketing
  • Management
  • Statistics

Graduate

Earning a graduate level degree can also be beneficial, and may be required for high level positions. If you do already have an undergraduate degree and want to pursue additional education specific to HR, your time and money may be better spent in a master's degree program. Cindy Giddens, M.A., SPHR, Human Resources Director for Alabama-based Southern Earth Sciences, Inc. (SESI) did just that. Giddens explains, "At 34 years of age and coming from an operations/office management background with a business administration degree, I returned to college for an HR Management certificate which led a graduate degree."

As SHRM indicates, "Just as general management careers can be greatly enhanced with graduate degrees, so can those in the field of HR management. Master's degrees in human resource management-whether a Master of Science in HR with coursework in industrial relations, organizational development, organizational behavior or other specialty, or a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in HR-are a vital part of preparation for an increasingly complex marketplace."

Field-Specific Training

If seeking a degree is not something that you need or are able to do, set aside time to participate in other types of training opportunities that can help you improve your knowledge of the practice of human resource management. A few options include:

  • HR Generalist Certificate: HR Training Center offers 3-day certificate programs that provide training specific to the many different areas of human resource management, including employment law, performance management, employee development, compensation/benefits, employee relations and more. Courses are offered at various locations throughout the U.S. on an ongoing basis. The course costs about $2,000. Participates receive an HR Generalist certificate, as well as access to a number of additional online and recorded training sessions with detailed instruction on several key employment laws.
  • HR.com Webcasts: Register for a free membership with HR.com and you'll be able to participate in up to 5 webcasts and one virtual conference on HR topics each month at no charge. These programs can help introduce you to important concepts and ideas for working in the field, as well as provide you with completed training information you can include on your resume. Participating in and highlighting this type of training is a great way to demonstrate to prospective employers that you are committed to pursuing an HR career as well as to your own professional development.

Gain Experience

In addition to ensuring that you have an educational background that employers will find appealing, it's also important to gain practical experience related to the practice of HR along the way.

  • Depending on your work background, you may have experience outside of an HR department that is relevant; if so, structure your resume to leverage your background to your best advantage.
  • If you are currently working, look for opportunities in your current position to develop key HR skills. For example, consider offering to help train or mentor new employees, volunteer to serve on committees or tasks forces related to employee issues. If doing so would not jeopardize your current position, let your boss know of your desire to transition into HR and ask for opportunities to cross-train in related areas.
  • If you don't have related work experience and aren't currently working, seek opportunities for entry-level employment - even on a temporary basis - that will expose you to relevant aspects like payroll, record-keeping, and other administrative functions related to dealing with employees.
  • If you are not in a position to seek new employment, consider seeking volunteer opportunities where you will have an opportunity to improve skills related to HR management. This could involve recruiting and/or managing volunteers for a nonprofit agency, serving as a volunteer assistant in the HR department of a charitable organization or providing training through youth programs.
  • If you are in school - or planning to return to school - make time in your schedule to participate in an internship as a way of gaining practical HR experience.

Professional Networking

Professional organization membership can be important to success in any career field. Giddens urges, "In order to prepare for a career in human resource management, you need to join and regularly attend a local SHRM chapter. This will allow you to develop relationships and network with HR professionals in your area. These relationships can be an integral part of your professional success."

By becoming an active SHRM chapter member, you'll have an opportunity to expand your horizons by participating in chapter meetings, educational conferences and other activities, as well as cultivate relationships with people who may be in a position to help you begin or transition your career. You may even find a mentor or learn about employment opportunities.

Certification

When you start looking at available HR jobs, you'll notice that many of them require Professional in Human Resources (PHR) or Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification, which are industry-standard credentials granted through the HR Certification Institute (HRCI). With employers placing so much emphasis on these credentials, it would seem that certification would be a primary recommendation for people preparing to go into an HR career. Certification is important for long-term success as an HR practitioner, but people who are in the process of preparing to go into the field are not eligible for either of these credentials.

In order to be eligible to sit for either the PHR or SPHR exam, you must already have significant exempt-level (professional) experience in the field of human resource management. As of 2014, the eligibility requirements for years of experience are:

Less than a Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree Master's degree
PHR 4 years 2 years 1 year
SPHR 7 years 5 years 4 years

While you can't earn either of these credentials during your career preparation process, it's important to set a goal for yourself to become certified once you are eligible. Giddens recommends, "Once you have enough experience, get your HR certification! A PHR or SPHR certification is becoming a very common requirement for landing an HR career position as these certifications prove your knowledge of human resource management."

Preparing for Success

"While going to school, I joined SHRM to network and learn," says Giddens. She continues, "I also utilized staffing agencies to get some type of temp/contract to permanent job in HR to get my foot in the door while working as a temporary customer service representative. After that, I became an HR assistant and then a benefits specialist before jumping to HR Director of SESI. I had a lot of admin experience and office skills to go with my education, so I transitioned easily to HR assistant. The benefits specialist job is where I gained experience with employee orientations, benefit plans, COBRA, etc. One thing doesn't necessarily work on its own - you need a strategy with multiple layers!"

A Good Beginning

Margie Bolton, VP of Human Resources for NLI

Taking a multi-faceted approach to career preparation is a good beginning for working in HR. The skills you develop charting your own career path can serve you well once you become an HR practitioner.

As Margie Bolton, Vice President of Human Resources for Norton Lilly International, Inc. (NLI) says, "As an HR professional, you are the voice for the company and the employee - in that order. It is your job to protect the company by ensuring they are following established policies and employment law, while protecting the organization. HR is also the customer service team for the entire company; you may be the only person besides the manager that an employee talks to."

By seeking education and training opportunities, becoming active in the professional community and gaining experience applicable to the field of HR, you'll get prepared to enter the field. Once you are there and move up to a professional-level position, you'll be able to seek professional certification and higher-level positions in your chosen profession.

How to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources