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Case Study: How to Change Career from Retail to Human Resources

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Natalie Armitage started her career in retail working at Greggs the UK’s largest bakery chain as a Retail Manager. At 26 she was inspired to switch career and study for a CIPD Human Resource qualification. Her first office job was with Kings College where she got promoted from an admin role into her first specialist HR position as OD Coordinator. She is now Case Consultant at Kings where she thoroughly enjoys managing a broad portfolio of employee relations cases including disciplinary, grievances, conduct, capability, whistleblowing, and employment tribunals.

We spoke to Natalie about switching careers, transferable skills and how gaining her CIPD qualification helped her to forge a successful career in HR.

Q: Do you have more opportunities now that you have the CIPD qualification? 

Yes, it has almost become an expectation when you go for an interview within HR or Learning and Development, the question pops up. “Have you got a CIPD qualification, or are you going to be working towards one?”

When I was transitioning from retail into HR, I found that my applications for jobs were just not being considered because the job description was asking for the CIPD qualification. As soon as I had on my CV that I was studying for my CIPD, doors started opening for me. There’s so much value from obtaining the qualification and continuing through the levels.

Q: What did you do beforehand, and what made you want to consider a shift in career to HR? 

I was a retail operations manager and then I also became a trade union representative. Before taking up the trade union rep role, I had very limited knowledge of what HR was. My understanding was limited to HR recruitment and they make the rules and then discipline people when they follow the rules. It was only when I undertook the role of union rep that I started to see employee relations cases and got involved in joint consultation meetings.

I remember sitting in a management conference and watching the HR regional manager present the people strategy and getting us to engage with that strategy. That was the moment that I realised I wanted to work in HR. I wanted to be involved in shaping strategy from a people perspective and to be part of creating an environment for an engaged, happy workforce where there’s fair processes and people want to come to work and feel like they’re valued.

Q: Has the qualification given you a framework to try different things? 

It has been incredible and inspiring. It gives you that push to keep going and keep progressing and keep learning. So far in my HR career I have been quite specialist and I think the real value for me doing the qualification was getting a broader insight of HR as a generalist role. It has helped me to think about issues more holistically rather than just be stuck in my specialism.

Studying the qualification with Acacia and having that interaction with people that are in HR and fellow students, you can also discuss any issues in more depth too.

Q: How did you find making the change, the transition to an HR role? 

I did find it quite difficult initially coming from a retail role which I began when I was 16 years old. I did not have a CV until I was 26 and I was looking for a route into HR. It was quite a challenge to understand how to write my CV. On top of that, people were looking at the CIPD qualification and they were also looking for office experience. I remember feeling quite frustrated because there were administrative elements to the management role that I held in retail. And I felt like they were very much overlooked because they were not in the office environment.

I enrolled on the CIPD level 3 and I changed my tactic a little bit. I decided that I was going to apply for an admin role, not specific to HR, just to gain the office experience. And I was very fortunate to get an admin job at King’s College, London.

I had just finished my CIPD level 3 when an internal vacancy came up for an organisational development role in HR. I applied for the job and was successful. It was difficult at first, but I do think that the CIPD has helped me to unlock some doors.

Q: Were there any skills from your previous role that were transferable to HR? 

I think even going back to my retail role, there were transferable skills such as customer service, that I still use today in my HR career. In HR you engage with stakeholders regularly and you are expected to deliver a service. It is understanding what is needed from you and delivering on that. And that is something that I learned in retail.
I also learnt to be able to think on my feet and to be flexible and adaptable in my approach. In both retail and HR, you are working with people and people can be unpredictable. Stuff can happen out of the blue and you need to act quickly and often make decisions in the moment. That is something that I had to do regularly in retail and something that I continue to do now in my case consultant role.

I also learned the importance of effective communication and to communicate clear expectations, to actively listen and to clarify understanding of my team, and to demonstrate empathy. It has been useful in my career, especially in my role now as a case consultant dealing with employer relations matters.

Q: Is HR a rewarding job, and does it provide you with a good work/life balance? 

I love working in HR. Every day I wake up and I am happy to be at work. I feel like the work that I do is valuable and that it adds to my workplace. I am constantly learning and growing, and it is the best move I could have made.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out? 

Resilience is so important. When you are getting those no’s, it is just preparing you for the yes. I took an admin role that was not specific to HR and that little diversion has been incredibly important in both of my specialists, HR roles.

I would say that it gets easier once you get a foot in the door and you are making those networks and you are learning first-hand. It gets easier and progression seems to happen quite quickly. You also find some incredible people who inspire and motivate and support you in this career.

Q: How is your work-life balance in HR? 

Fantastic. I work nine to five, and I do work nine until five. With the current circumstances I am working from home, so my life balance is even better because there is no commute.

With HR you can use it as a steppingstone into senior management roles because it involves the strategy of the business nowadays, and you have got all those skills. At one time we just had soft skills, but now if you are a senior HR person, you have got a budget to manage, and you must understand people, analytics, and data. Therefore, you have got all the skills that you are going to need, to move into a senior management role. I personally think companies, if they are choosing, an HR director to move into a managing director or CEO role, that is not a bad decision. So, the sky’s the limit!

Connect with Natalie on Linkedin.