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Want a career in HR? How to get your foot in the door

Posted on from Hays

The career of an HR professional can be both challenging and rewarding. Barney Ely advises on the best ways to start a career in HR and the type of career paths it can offer.

HR - key to organisational strategy

The role of the HR professional is constantly evolving and has gone from being a support/administration function to being much more strategic.

Organisations realise that people strategies such as talent management, recruitment and staff engagement are critical to an organisation’s success. HR professionals are responsible for designing and delivering these strategies and ensuring they are aligned to business objectives.

Making the move into HR - first steps

Your HR career can be kick-started through various different routes; one of the most common is straight from university after completing either a degree in HR management, a certificate in personnel practice (CPP), a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) course or a business degree.

Other common routes for starting a career in HR include completing a gap/placement year in an HR department or gaining administrative experience and progressing to HR. You could also be seconded to the HR department within your current organisation or move into HR after working in a PA or secretarial role, which has additional HR duties.

Moving to HR from a different career

Individuals with a background in employment legislation or recruitment, or who were previously a PA or secretary, will often find it easier to make the transition as they may have had HR responsibilities as part of their previous role.

A career progression survey on HR professionals undertaken by Hays Human Resources and Personnel Today in 2009, revealed over one third (36%) of respondents entered HR from an administration background, highlighting the opportunity to make a transition.

The Challenge in switching to a career in HR is to maintain your salary level. You will be in competition with candidates with substantial HR experience which makes this a difficult prospect. You will need to be flexible as you may have to take a lower salary in order to move forward.

What key skills do HR professionals need?

When applying for an HR role, you will need to differentiate yourself from the competition. To do this you will need to demonstrate a real commitment to HR as a profession: attending CIPD seminars and other networking or sector events can help. You could also try to do some unpaid work experience as this will demonstrate dedication, give you some experience of the HR working environment and may even lead to a permanent position.

In order to start a career in HR, you will also need to show first class communication and interpersonal skills as the majority of the role will be people orientated. You will deal with people at all levels within an organisation so must be able to show your adaptability. Organisational skills and flexibility is also a must in order to deal with a busy and unpredictable workload. Private sector organisations will also look for people who can demonstrate commercial acumen.

Starting out in HR

It is important to note that CIPD and other HR qualifications are becoming increasingly important to employers; therefore if you have no previous HR experience it might be a good idea to explore obtaining a qualification. It is common for HR professionals to start with a CPP qualification as this shows commitment and then later move onto a CIPD qualification, which requires a greater commitment.

Currently, entry-level professionals are in demand within organisations with relatively sizeable HR teams, graduate schemes or in shared service organisations. Depending on the level of qualification and knowledge you would have an initial starting salary which would range from £16,000 - £20,000 per year.

HR career path - next steps

Once you are working within HR there is a defined career path for you to follow. The larger organisations in particular are more structured and their HR functions are split into specialist areas such as resourcing, recruitment and selection, reward and remuneration and learning and development.

Smaller organisations are more generalist, but they can also offer a clear career path for HRs. However, in both small and large organisations alike, progressing beyond HR director level, for example to managing director or chief executive roles, rarely happens in practice.

The positive news is that HR is now firmly entrenched around the boardroom table, increasing the opportunities for senior HR professionals to progress and really show their value in a company which means that it offers those starting out in their careers a clear goal to set their sights on.

Important to link HR to the wider business needs

It is important to note that the responsibility to progress rests largely with you to take ownership of your career. The HR profession as a whole is very proactive when it comes to networking, sharing experiences and knowledge and individuals should tap into this.

It's important for HR professionals to gain as much experience as possible outside the boundaries of their remit and make the effort to understand the wider business implications.

Broader commercial experience is a definite plus and this is something that HR practitioners should be thinking about. Mentoring is also beneficial and is a good way to discuss and address career development needs on an ongoing basis.

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