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How to Get an Entry-Level Employment in HR

It's one of the most commonly asked questions at the Society For Human Resource management's (SHRM's) online social networks:

"How can I get an entry-level position in HR?"

There are a variety of college HR programs offered and executives' growing focus on the role of employees as an asset strategic to their business you'd think that more organizations and even college career centers would be able map out pathways to enter the field, like SHRM does. While some institutions have been successful in helping graduates become HR professionals, a few HR professionals have said that the efforts of many others fail to meet expectations.

The society awards a Certificate of Learning to HR students who have completed an SHRM Assurance of Learning Assessment. Additionally, it provides an internationally recognized basis for traditional and other students who have no prior experience in HR, the certificate proves that they have acquired the basic knowledge needed to become a successful HR professional. This can also give them an edge over other entry-level HR candidates.

Some schools don't align their placement and academic programs according to the requirements of the human resources world, a lot of HR professionals told. And some businesses don't articulate what they want the HR function to do in the beginning.

In the firms that have defined expectations for HR, expectations vary dramatically. In certain cases, the department is accountable an executive. For others, it's a part of the portfolio of the chief financial officer. Some companies entrust HR with the simplest of tasks, while others view their workforce as an essential component of its success. The way a graduate finds an entry point could differ from employer to employer.

"There's there's no clear-cut path because HR's such a broad area," said Catherine E. Preim, SHRM-CP HR manager at Philadelphia-based consultancy firm SYSTRA USA. The role encompasses the entire spectrum of HR, from benefit administration to diversification to workforce planning and technology.

In general there are three pathways that lead to entry-level positions in the field:

  • A college degree in HR.
  • A degree in a related subject, like business or industrial/organizational psychology, then applying those skills to HR by earning appropriate certifications.
  • Working for several years as an operating manager at an organisation, before transitioning to HR.

Here are some strategies that can help you get the attention HR's hiring managers.

Gain Experience

You need on-the-job experience, regardless of your school of study in HR. "Don't believe that having a degree and you're qualified to fill the job," warned Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, chief executive for Xceptional HR in Oklahoma City and the founder of

"You depend on experience within HR." stated Tracy Burns who is the CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association in Concord, Mass., and a SHRM chapter. "You must ... transfer what's been learned in the classroom to the real-world." There are a myriad of laws pertaining to employment regulations, compliance and other issues that come with HR, it's "a hazardous profession, that's why you need to understand what you can and cannot do."

What is the best way to gain that experience?

Sharlyn Lauby is the president of South-Florida-based consultants in training ITM Group and creator of the blog HR Bartender, suggested three techniques:

  • Internships, which not only provide hands-on opportunities, but also provide exposure to prospective employers.
  • Involvement in a student chapter, which she called "a ideal way to make connections with providers and practitioners."
  • Investigating opportunities with HR services providers who "have immense HR expertise in-house."

"Internships are the No. 1 in importance," Miller-Merrell added. "If you're able gain one years of experience in school, you'll get something to gain."

Build Relationships

"HR employees are excellent networkers and they love helping people succeed. So take advantages of their talents," advised Mike Kahn, SHRM-SCP, executive senior member for Human Resources Search at the Lucas Group in Houston. "Network like crazy. Due to the fact that organizations have so many differences in how they manage HR, it's crucial to learn how to work in the culture of a business."

This brings us to the issue of how you can network. Though some answers may be obvious--reach out to alumni, attend meetings of the local SHRM chapter and get involved with other professional associations--Miller-Merrell went a bit further. "Whether you're at the SHRM chapter you belong to, a certain conference or a state council meeting, attend where your bosses would be," she said. "If you're the onlyhigh school senior there, you're only competing against you."

Many students, she noted do not seek out experts who can help them. While she talks to a number of student HR groups, Miller Merrell said, "I'd say I've had one student who contacted me over the past five years. This means there's plenty of chances for building relationships."

Be a Business Person

Understand that human resources is most definitely an operational function. If you think it's for you because you're a "people particular," it's on the wrong path.

"It's about knowing the business and implementing people-focused strategies," said Caliopie Walsh director of HR at Experian Marketing Services in New York City. "During interviews the majority of new applicants say they love HR because they enjoy people. This is the most untrue answer they could give. Ultimately, a great HR person is a business-savvy professional and is able to apply strategies for people to help it succeed."

"Companies are looking for business professionals with HR-related expertise," Kahn said. "They seek business acumen analytical and system capabilities." In reality they say that some of the most successful HR professionals are those who've had an experience in the field of business first, and then moved into HR.

It's just not the most basic path. After years of developing their experiences in business, these individuals generally come with a higher level of experience. In addition, Miller-Merrell noted the difficulties this path presents "because there are a lot of HR nuances it is necessary to understand."

Additionally, according Tameka RenaeStegall, an HR consultant at the energy services company Schlumberger in Houston new hires from other departments often are met with the resistance of HR's employees. "The problem is that when they examine resumes, they're sorting through boxes," she said. "So they're not saying "This person has been a manager. They can be adapted to HR. If they spot someone who is senior and will cost more , and they look to hire a young person which is cheaper."

Manage Your Expectations

Also, it's vital for applicants at an entry level to control their expectations. Though it's not always the case, some graduates balk at the type of work they'll be expected to perform when they begin their careers. "In HR, you'll get four years of education and your first job you get feels like administrative. But that's where the profession evolved from," Burns said.

Also, the job is "foundational," Stegall said. "You must be adaptable and be ready to start at the bottom because that's how you're going get to know all the pieces. HR has lots of moving pieces."

Preim stated it well: "It's like any other job. It's unrealistic to think you'd have the job of an HR manager without having some prior years of experience. It's time to get your feet in the water."

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