How to Get an Entry-Level Job in HR

By Mark Feffer Feb 1, 2016
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It’s one of the most common questions posed on the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) social media channels:​

“How do I get an entry-level job in HR?”

With a number of college HR programs available and executives’ growing focus on the workforce as a strategic asset, you’d think that more organizations and college career centers would be able to map out clear paths into the profession, like SHRM has. While some schools have been effective at helping their graduates break into HR, a number of practitioners say the efforts of many others fall short.

The society issues a Certificate of Learning to HR students who have passed the SHRM Assurance of Learning Assessment. In addition to providing a recognized benchmark for traditional and nontraditional students with little to no HR work experience, the certificate proves they have acquired the minimum knowledge required to be a successful HR professional. It also can give them an advantage over other entry-level HR candidates.

Some schools don’t tailor their academic and placement efforts to the realities of the HR world, a number of HR professionals said. And some businesses don’t articulate what it is they want their HR functions to do in the first place.

In the businesses that do have defined expectations for HR, those expectations vary widely. At some, the department reports to the CEO. At others, it’s part of the chief financial officer’s portfolio. Some companies task HR with little more than administration, while others regard the workforce as an important component of its success. As a result, how a graduate finds an entry point can differ markedly from employer to employer.

“There’s not a clear path because HR’s so broad,” said Catherine E. Preim, SHRM-CP, HR manager with Philadelphia-based transportation consulting firm SYSTRA USA. Indeed, the function encompasses everything from benefits administration and diversity to workforce planning and technology.

Generally speaking, though, three paths can lead to an entry-level position 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 in an operational role at a company, then transitioning into HR.

Here are some common strategies for getting the attention of HR’s hiring managers.

Get Experience

You need on-the-job experience, even if you majored in HR. “Don’t think just because you have a degree, you’re qualified for the role,” warned Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, chief executive of Xceptional HR in Oklahoma City and founder of Blogging4Jobs.com.

“You rely heavily on experience in HR,” added Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association in Concord, Mass., a SHRM chapter. “You have to … apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to the real world.” With all the employment laws, regulations and compliance issues that go along with it, HR can be “a risky profession, and you have to learn what you can and cannot do.”

So how do you get that experience?

Sharlyn Lauby, president of South Florida-based training consultant ITM Group and creator of the blog HR Bartender, suggested three approaches:

  • Internships, which not only offer hands-on experience but also provide exposure to prospective employers.
  • Getting involved with a SHRM student chapter, which she called “a great way to network with practitioners and providers.”
  • Exploring opportunities with HR service providers, who “have tremendous HR expertise in-house.”

“Internships are No. 1 in importance,” said Miller-Merrell. “If you can get one year of experience while you’re in school, you’ve got an advantage.”

Build Relationships

“HR people are good networkers and they like to help people succeed, so take advantage of their nature,” advised Mike Kahn, SHRM-SCP, executive senior partner of Human Resources Search at the Lucas Group in Houston. “Network like crazy. Because organizations have so many variances in how they approach HR, it can be key to learning how to get into a company.”

That leads to the question of how to 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 it’s the SHRM chapter, a particular conference or a state council meeting, go where your bosses would be,” she said. “If you’re the only [college] senior there, you’re only competing against yourself.”

Many students, she added, don’t reach out to the professionals who could help them. Though she speaks to a number of student HR organizations, Miller-Merrell said, “I’d say I’ve had one student follow up with me in the last five years. So there’s ample opportunity to build relationships.”

Be a Business Person

Understand that human resources is, first and foremost, a business function. If you think it’s for you because you’re a “people person,” you’re on the wrong track.

“It’s about understanding business and applying people strategies,” said Caliopie Walsh, vice president of HR at Experian Marketing Services in New York City. “During interviews, a lot of entry-level candidates say they like HR because they like people. That’s the worst answer they can give. Ultimately, a great HR person understands the business and can apply people strategies to help it succeed.”

“Companies want strong business people with HR expertise,” Kahn said. “They want business acumen, analytics and systems capabilities.” In fact, many say that the most effective practitioners are those who’ve gotten business experience first, then made a lateral move into HR.

Unfortunately, that’s not really an entry-level path. After spending years developing their business experience, such professionals usually come in at a more advanced level. Plus, Miller-Merrell pointed out, this path poses challenges “because there are a lot of [HR] nuances you have to learn.”

In addition, said Tameka Renae Stegall, an HR business partner at energy services firm Schlumberger in Houston, those moving in from other areas often run into resistance from HR’s own managers. “The problem is when people look at resumes, they’re checking off boxes,” she said. “So they’re not saying, ‘This person’s been a manager. They could adapt to HR.’ Or they see someone senior who’s going to cost more money and they go and hire a student, who’ll be cheaper.”

Manage Your Expectations

Finally, it’s important for entry-level candidates to manage their expectations. Though it’s not always the case, some graduates balk at the type of work they’re expected to do when they start out. “In HR, you get a four-year degree and the first job feels administrative. But that’s where the profession evolved from,” Burns said.

Besides, such work is “foundational,” Stegall said. “You have to be flexible and you have to be ready to start at the bottom, because that’s how you’re going to understand all of the pieces, and HR has a lot of moving pieces.”

Preim summed it up nicely: “It’s like any other career. It’s unrealistic to think you’d get an HR manager’s role without some experience. You have to get your feet wet.”

​Mark Feffer is a Pennsylvania-based writer who focuses on careers and technology.

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