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Preparing for a Career in HR


A career in human resource management is rewarding and challenging. Consistently ranked in numerous "best jobs" reports and currently expected to have higher-than-average job growth, positions in the field of human resources allow individuals to achieve continuous career advancement and perform meaningful work.

Human resource (HR) management is the process of effectively managing an organization's employees, commonly known as its human resources or human capital. HR professionals oversee the business of managing people in an organization, which includes functions such as compensation, benefits, training and development, staffing and strategic planning, to name a few. HR practitioners strategize to recruit and retain the best employees by making the company competitive in terms of its attractiveness to potential candidates, so that they will choose to accept a position with and remain working for an employer. In today's competitive environment, human resource management is critically important to remain viable in the global marketplace. Organizations may replicate processes, materials and structures of other successful organizations, but only the talent of an organization makes it unique and distinguishes it from competitors. HR plays a pivotal role in creating better workplaces for a better world.

HR is a key component of any organization's senior management team. Though the human resource department is widely known for tactical work such as conducting interviews, explaining company benefits, managing employee relations and helping to hire managers with performance and productivity expectations, the profession has a much larger role in business today. HR professionals have evolved from the behind-the-scenes administrative role to active involvement in shaping corporate policy and strategy. Senior management recognizes the significant contributions of HR to the organization's bottom line and overall success. To a more significant extent than ever before, many HR roles are focused equally on contributing strategically and functionally to managing the organization's talent. This article highlights the various pathways an individual may choose in order to pursue a career in HR.

SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge

HR Competencies

Both technical knowledge and soft skills are necessary for success in the HR profession. Patience and flexibility are needed, as HR professionals frequently interact with people of widely differing levels of experience, intelligence, emotional intelligence, education, knowledge, skills and abilities. HR professionals are also involved in compliance-related work that demands close attention to detail, a strong knowledge of employment laws and business practices, and well-developed communication skills. From the strategic viewpoint, when setting policies and practices, HR is the "voice of management" to employees but is also called upon to act as an advocate on behalf of employees, to ensure their viewpoint is represented to management. As a supporter of both the business and the people perspectives, diplomacy is a must. Sound judgment, good listening skills and tact are necessary—as are influencing skills, the ability to link people strategies with business strategies, and the ability to prove the value that human capital adds to the organization's bottom line. The SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge™ (SHRM BASK™) defines the competencies and knowledge necessary for effective practice as an HR professional and is a good place to start in understanding what it takes to be successful in an HR career.

HR Education

While a college degree is not necessary for some entry-level HR positions, pursuing a formal HR education is becoming increasingly important in today's competitive job market. This increased demand for knowledgeable HR professionals prompted SHRM to consider the type of guidance it provides to those considering HR as a profession—and the type of formal education one should undertake in order to be appropriately prepared to become an HR professional.

Consequently, and as a result of a multiyear, multi-method research project, SHRM developed its HR Curriculum Guidebook and Templates to encourage universities to standardize HR education requirements. SHRM's research engaged students, faculty and practitioners to establish these minimum standards, and the resulting guides reflect the importance of obtaining HR education taught in a formal business context.

SHRM strongly suggests that undergraduates pursue a balanced curriculum that includes the behavioral sciences, social sciences and the liberal arts. Courses that develop oral and written communication skills are equally essential. But most important, HR students should study business—economics, general business, business and labor law, accounting, marketing, management, and statistics (also known as quantitative methods). Any additional coursework undertaken to meet the greater technical demands of specialties within human resources—for example, compensation and benefits—should be taught with a business focus and business or policy application of the functional area of knowledge.

Just as general management careers can be greatly enhanced with graduate degrees, so can those in the field of HR management. Master's degrees in human resource management—whether a master of science in HR with coursework in industrial relations, organizational development, organizational behavior or other specialty; or a master of business administration with a concentration in HR—are a vital part of preparation for an increasingly complex marketplace. SHRM's HR Curriculum Guidebook and Templates includes information on the HR topics you should study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. These HR content areas, when taught with a focus on HR competencies and business or policy applications in the workplace, prepare you for the challenges you will encounter daily as an HR professional.

The SHRM website includes a list of the university programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels that align with SHRM's suggested minimum standards for HR education. Please note: SHRM does not rank, accredit or recommend specific university programs.

Linking Education with Experience

Most entry-level positions in human resources require some minimum experience, and getting your foot in the door without real-world application of HR can be difficult; however, completing an HR internship provides this necessary experience and can be a vital component in landing an HR position. SHRM's HR Jobs site includes employer postings for available internship opportunities in the HR field.

New for 2021, the SHRM Foundation's Human Resource Registered Apprenticeship Program (HR RAP) provides individuals with a free program that couples on-the-job learning with required coursework over an 18-24 month period. For a full description of this apprenticeship program, see HR RAP Program Design.

Finding Your First HR Position

Because human resources can be a tough field to enter, developing a network of HR contacts can be key to obtaining your first HR role. SHRM offers individuals the opportunity to meet and build relationships with HR professionals who represent potential employers through online networking, attendance at conferences and events, and local chapter involvement. SHRM chapters often have career services, such as placement services or newsletters that advertise open positions, and the contacts made through local chapters can help open doors into the field of HR. Through the connections they made as active members of SHRM, many student members have obtained internships and entry-level jobs that were never advertised to the public.

The Internet is filled with posted job opportunities, but it can be become overwhelming when deciding where to look and how to navigate different job boards. SHRM's HR Jobs site includes current HR job listings, as well as the ability to post a resume that can be viewed by employers looking to fill HR roles.

Educating yourself on effective job search practices, resume writing, interviewing and other skills can increase your chances of landing an interview and job offer. Your Career Q&A is a collection of articles by bestselling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, designed to help individuals further their HR career.

Students can also work with a college career center to guide their job search. Some large companies recruit recent graduates for their internal training programs and/or leadership development programs. While some schools with dedicated HR programs have recruiters come to campus, many organizations use other recruitment methods to find and attract college graduates for HR openings, and a college career counselor can assist in identifying these opportunities.

Creativity and persistence can also pay off. Some individuals find that they need to start out in different positions, such as an HR assistant or a line manager role where they gain experience in the company and later move into a professional-level HR role. Others start out at small organizations without an HR department and assume HR-related duties under a different job title. As the organization grows, the company will eventually need to establish an HR department, and an opportunity may arise. To learn more about the job market in your community, talk with local HR professionals and ask them for their advice on the best ways to get started in an HR career. Consider joining a local SHRM chapter for additional networking opportunities.

Transitioning to an HR Career from Another Field

For individuals with a different academic background from that described or employment experience in another profession, a readily transferable, related academic background and related professional experience will help. Experience in general management and an understanding of business processes are important. When there are not sufficient numbers of qualified HR professionals with the preferred experience, employers occasionally hire other professionals who have related experience and who are willing to undertake additional education or training.

Those interested in HR as a profession can take college courses, attend seminars or take self-study courses as a starting point. In such circumstances, professional counselors might find opportunities in employer-sponsored employee assistance programs; teachers may be hired by training departments; or accounting, math and statistics majors could find employment in compensation and employee benefits. Law school graduates or attorneys may be hired to handle legal compliance or employee relations activities. Above-average communication skills are always essential for HR professionals. Since HR professionals handle confidential information and must be comfortable interacting with employees at all levels, companies often seek people who are mature and experienced professionals—especially for higher-level positions in HR.

SHRM Certification

SHRM offers two certification levels, the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and the SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Earning your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP credential makes you a recognized expert in the HR field—and a valuable asset to your organization, keeping you and your organization more competitive in today's economy. This professional distinction sets you apart from your colleagues, proving your high level of knowledge and skills.

HR professionals who implement policies and strategies serve as point of contact for staff and stakeholders, deliver HR services, and perform operational HR functions should take the SHRM-CP exam.

HR professionals who develop strategies, lead the HR function, foster influence in the community, analyze performance metrics and align HR strategies to organizational goals should take the SHRM-SCP exam.

Eligibility to take the exam for either certification requires specific educational and work experience. Students who are enrolled in their final year of an undergraduate or graduate degree program at a college or university that is aligned to SHRM's curriculum guidelines and who have internship or practical HR experience may be eligible to sit for the SHRM-CP exam.

Continuing Education

Staying current in one's profession is essential to all industries, and human resource management is no exception. Many organizations offer professional development programs specifically designed to help HR professionals stay current in HR practices. SHRM offers competency-based HR education programs that can support your development of essential competencies and continued advancement of your credibility.

Keeping abreast of HR news such as legal updates, trending practices and labor force data is necessary for anyone working in HR.

Continuing education is also necessary in maintaining your SHRM certification. Professional development credits must be obtained to recertify your credentials every three years.

Career Paths in HR: Generalist vs. Specialist

Deciding how to choose between an HR generalist and HR specialist career often depends not only on your personal preferences, but also upon the nature and size of the organization you work for or wish to work for.

The Generalist

HR Generalist is a soup-to-nuts position, covering a multitude of functions from hiring, compensation and benefits, training—anything is possible based on the needs of the company. A generalist is most often administering policies and procedures already in place, but they may develop policies, often under supervision, based on the needs of the company. HR Generalist is also a title often used in one-person HR departments in order to reflect their expansive duties. This is a be-ready-for-anything HR position that will require solid knowledge across all disciplines.

Examples of generalist job titles include HR business partner, HR generalist, HR assistant, HR manager, or people services specialist or manager.

Generalists can continue on this path and advance into management and leadership roles or they may choose to specialize in areas of interest later in their career as they gain more experience.

The Specialist

Specializing  in a particular area of HR is appealing to certain individuals, and some organizations desire specialists with technical knowledge and skills in specific areas of human resource management. HR professionals who start out in a generalist role often find they prefer a specific HR discipline and move on to specialty areas later in their careers. But there are also entry-level specialist roles, particularly in larger organizations, for individuals who prefer the focus of a specialty area rather than the broad duties of a generalist position. The most common areas of specialization are described below.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion


  • Researching, developing, recommending and executing strategies to meet an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals.
  • Facilitating training and education on DE&I.
  • Coordinating employee resource groups.
  • Assisting HR and managers in ensuring equity in hiring, compensation and other aspects of employment.
  • Serving as the company liaison with government agencies concerning affirmative action and equal employment opportunities.

Job titles: Director of diversity, equity and inclusion; diversity, equity and inclusion manager; and diversity, equity and inclusion analysts, coordinators and trainers.

Occupational Outlook: Unavailable.


Employee and Labor Relations

Duties: Employee relations specialists perform a variety of duties that may include:

  • Designing, implementing and overseeing the performance management process.
  • Engaging in conflict resolution practices.
  • Handling employee grievances and investigating employee complaints.
  • Administering employee involvement or engagement programs.

In union environments, this role is commonly referred to as a labor relations specialist, with duties that involve:

  • Interpreting union contracts.
  • Assisting with collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
  • Handling labor grievances.
  • Advising supervisors on union contract interpretation.

Job titles: Performance management specialist, manager or director; employee advocate; and manager of labor or employee relations.

Occupational Outlook: Labor Relations Specialists.


Risk Management


  • Developing and administering workplace health and safety programs.
  • Conducting safety inspections.
  • Maintaining accident records and preparing required forms and reports.
  • Coordinating workers’ compensation claims.
  • Maintaining a secure work facility to protect the organization’s physical property and the well-being of all employees.

Job titles: Safety officer; health and safety specialist; risk management specialist or manager; and OSHA manager. Employee assistance program counselors and medical program administrators also work within this function.

Occupational Outlook: Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians.


Total Rewards (Compensation and Benefits)


  • Performing job analysis and preparing job descriptions.
  • Performing job evaluations and conducting and analyzing compensation surveys.
  • Designing and administering compensation structures.
  • Conducting data analysis of benefits programs.
  • Administering benefits plans and monitoring benefits costs.
  • Communicating with employees about benefits programs and coordinating enrollments.
  • Management of outsourced vendors or partners.

Some specialists perform tasks within all areas of compensation, benefits and job analysis. Others specialize in just one of these areas.

Job titles: Compensation and benefits specialist; benefits analyst; job analysis specialist; compensation specialist or manager.

Occupational Outlook: Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists.


Training and Development


  • Conducting training sessions and administering on-the-job training programs.
  • Evaluating training programs and external providers.
  • Maintaining the necessary records of employee participation in all training and development programs.
  • Conducting training needs analysis.
  • Identifying training needs for specific industries such as sales techniques or safety programs.
  • Managing strategic continuous improvement processes for the organization and aligning development programs with the business goals.

Job titles: Trainer; employee development specialist or manager; leadership development specialist or manager; organizational development (OD) specialist or manager.

Occupational Outlook: Training and Development Managers.


Workforce Planning and Employment (Recruiting)


  • Implementing the organization’s recruiting strategy.
  • Assessing the current workforce; planning to meet future staffing needs.
  • Sourcing and interviewing applicants.
  • Participating in college job fairs and other recruitment events.
  • Administering pre-employment tests.
  • Conducting background investigations.
  • Communicating with candidates and facilitating candidate engagement.
  • Processing transfers, promotions and terminations.

Job titles: Chief talent manager or officer; recruiter; recruitment and retention specialist or manager; staffing specialist or manager.

Occupational Outlook: Unavailable.

Other specialists' responsibilities don't fall neatly into one functional area. Human resource information systems (HRIS) specialists manage the computerized flow of information and reports about employees, their benefits and programs. Some specialists manage global HR—a growing specialty area—while others concentrate on organizational development and meeting the organization's needs for workers in the future. Still others pursue HR consultancy or teaching HR in an academic setting. Many options are available depending on the area of HR that interests you most.

Changing specialties within HR can also enhance career development possibilities; at some point in your HR career, you may wish to pursue another area of interest within the field.

Salaries for HR Professionals

Salaries for HR professionals differ and are dependent upon many factors such as an organization's size, economic activity, geographic location and profitability.

SHRM's HR Compensation Data Center, powered by, features customizable salary information for numerous job titles across industries. As part of your SHRM membership, you can access salary information for the HR job family at no cost.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook also provides general compensation information and job growth expectations.


SHRM is here to support individuals throughout their HR career journey. From student to executive and every role in between, SHRM has the tools and resources to enable individuals to successfully manage their HR career journey. We are the world's largest HR professional society, representing 300,000+ HR professionals and business executive members in 165 countries, who impact the lives of more than 115 million workers and their families. Visit the SHRM website for more information about membership.