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How to get ahead in HR

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By Kay Maddox-Daines

Over the course of my career I have worked in people management as a consultant, manager and educator. During this period there is one question that I have been asked more than any other: how do I get a job in HR?

One of the great aspects of the people profession is the ability for people to join at various points in their career. There are opportunities for those at the beginning of their careers and for those in transition. I have worked with thousands of students, from school leavers, graduates, post graduates, PhD students and seasoned professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, from hotel receptionists seeking to gain a role as HR Administrator to teachers, accountants and lawyers seeking a career change.

I believe that there has never been a more exciting time to join the people profession. A career in HR has always presented a good mix of variety and opportunities but the profession is changing quickly and this calls for a diverse range of skills, knowledge and competence. People professionals will need to support organisations in managing people differently, through virtual and hybrid working arrangements. This calls for expertise in digitalisation, analytics, internationalisation and values-based decision making. People professionals will increasingly be needed to guide organisations through significant change, moving beyond discussion of workforce engagement to more of a partnership approach where every employee is able to contribute fully to the goals of the organisation.

A career in the people profession provides plenty of opportunity for progression and advancement and this will develop further as the profession evolves. Knowledge, skills and competencies that are needed today may well change over time. Specialisms are likely to develop further to take account of the need for skilled analysts and digital experts. Whether you have a preference for learning and development, compensation and reward, organisational design and development, strategic planning, operational people management, resourcing talent, performance management, health and well-being, technology and analysis, there is a role for you in the people profession! Not only that but the pay is pretty good too. Beyond pay the profession offers the opportunity to make a difference to people and organisations, to challenge taken for granted assumptions and to engage in meaningful work. The skills, knowledge and experience that you gain in the people profession are highly transferable too so that if you decide to change career later you will have developed a set of versatile competencies that will support you in a wide range of roles.

But hey, I don’t need to sell a career in HR to you if you’re already thinking of how to get a job in the people profession! So, where do you begin? This really depends on your starting point. For some, you will have accrued valuable work experience in other sectors and industries and for others this may be your first role. The great thing about the HR profession is that it offers a degree of flexibility so that no matter your background there will be an opportunity for you.

Having decided that HR is for you, you might now consider whether you would prefer to generalise or specialise. By this I mean, would you like to work across all areas in HR or would you prefer to focus on say, resourcing talent or learning and development. Have a look at job vacancies to get a sense of the roles available and look out for new opportunities in people analytics and digitalisation too.

The role of the HR professional spans the employee life cycle, from recruiting, selecting, onboarding and induction, to learning and developing, performance managing, well-being and employee exit. But as HR professionals become more senior in their organisations, they are also strategic partners, contributing to the development and accomplishment of organisational goals. They support the development of organisation culture which facilitates employee engagement through employee development opportunities, recognition and reward and wellbeing. HR professionals are also change champions, monitoring employee satisfaction, measuring results of organisation initiatives and advocates of organisation vision, mission and objectives.

Depending on your starting point you might like to explore the following routes into the HR profession:

Apprenticeship routes into the people profession in the UK

Apprenticeships are paid roles which essentially provide training on the job whilst also combining off the job learning. In the UK apprenticeships are offered in both human resources and learning and development. Apprenticeships last for a minimum of 12 months but must be completed in 20 months and the training can be delivered by a registered college, university or independent training provider that delivers the formal development in partnership with the employer and the work-based training. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is approved to carry out the assessment activities that take place at the end of the apprenticeship training programme.

The graduate route

Over the years I have worked with many graduate learners from all disciplines, English, History, Geography, Philosophy, Classics and many more. If you are certain that you would like to follow a career in people management you may decide to undertake a degree in this area. Some universities provide professional accreditation in addition to the awarding degrees. This means that they have mapped their programmes to an awarding body such as the CIPD. You might like to explore programmes with gap years that will allow you to gain experience in a people related role.

Work experience

No matter what your starting point, getting an insight into what a people practitioner actually does is a great asset on a CV. Any work experience in the profession can be helpful and it might be that you have family or friends that can assist in securing a week or two of shadowing others on the job. If not, do liaise with teachers, lecturers, careers advisors, work experience placement coordinators, anyone and everyone that might be able to help. Look for internships and voluntary work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People need to know what you would like to do and what you are seeking and you’ll be surprised at the possibilities that might appear.

For career transitioners

It is never too late to transition to a new role. In the people profession having some previous work experience can work to your advantage. A great way to prepare for career change is to explore job profiles and their entry requirements. This will provide you with a platform from which to assess where you are and where you wish to get to. Before diving in and assessing potential roles that might suit your skills and experience, it might be worthwhile to take a step back and assess your current position. What really interests you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you really prefer? What do you value? Then, explore the essential and desirable criteria and assess how your current skills, knowledge and experience might be transferred to your new role. Undertake a gap analysis to support your continuing professional development. Then, tailor your CV so that it highlights your alignment to the new role.

Kay Maddox-Daines is the author of “How to get ahead in HR” published by London Publishing Partnership available at How to Get Ahead in HR - The London Publishing PartnershipThe London Publishing Partnership.

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