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How to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources


Business people working together in office
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Liking people is not the only qualification for pursuing a career in Human Resources. It helps, but it is insufficient for success. Human Resources jobs and careers continue to grow in sophistication and the expectations of employers increase every year. Employee development, employee retention, and a positive, motivating work environment are critical to business success.

In Human Resources, like any other career, some minimum requirements exist to enter the field. But, you have the opportunity to continue to develop these skills and experiences as you work in Human Resources and are promoted into higher level, more responsible roles.

In smaller companies, one or a few HR staff members wear many hats and do HR generalist work with responsibility for all aspects of HR. 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 called Human Resources, the opportunity to find a work setting that suits your skills and strengths, your preference for company size or your desire to specialize or generalize, is great. The more of the following skills and qualifications you possess, the more likely you are to be hired and later promoted in Human Resources.


Degrees to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

The Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts that career and job opportunities will be most available in Human Resources for people who keep these three key points in mind:
  • "The educational backgrounds of these workers vary considerably, reflecting the diversity of duties and levels of responsibility.
  • "Certification and previous experience are assets for most specialties, and are essential for more advanced positions, including managers, arbitrators, and mediators.
  • "College graduates who have earned certification should have 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, courses leading to a career in Human Resources management will be found in departments such as business, education, instructional design or technology, organization development, human services, communication, or public administration.


Coursework to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

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 include business administration, public administration, psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and statistics. Courses in labor law, collective bargaining, labor economics, labor history, and industrial psychology also provide a valuable background for the prospective labor relations specialist."

Graduate Programs to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

If you are considering a career in Human Resources, you need to know that many professionals are also pursuing Masters degrees in Human Resources, Organization Development, Business Administration (MBA), and other fields. A Masters degree will eventually be required if you are in competition for the best jobs.

Some HR professionals say that the Masters is the new Bachelors degree in the field. And, because of the challenge of employment law, more Human Resources professionals are obtaining law degrees or transferring into Human Resources 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."

Qualifications to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

Some of the key skills and personal qualifications you will need to work successfully in Human Resources include:
  • Effective interpersonal skills so you can interact successfully.
  • Knowledge of computers and information systems.
  • 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.
  • Able to set and accomplish goals and work as a member of a team.
  • Demonstrate a high level of integrity, confidentiality, and fairness.

Experience to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

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. They should consider obtaining certifications or taking coursework related to their Human Resources area of interest in preparation.

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.

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