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Is Earning an Undergraduate Degree in HR the Best Way to Prepare for an HR Career?

Two experts debate the issue

We asked—and you answered. Take a look at what readers had to say about this topic in Is It Education or Experience That Makes the HR Professional?

 More employers are seeking HR candidates with degrees in HR than any other major.

As an HR educator at a university, I often receive inquiries from prospective students about their career prospects in human resources. During these conversations, I share stories about the rewards and challenges of our profession and discuss the best way to break into the field. Although HR draws from a number of disciplines, including psychology, business, education and other social sciences, several studies show that employers especially value job seekers who graduate from HR-specific degree programs.

For example, in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, 70 percent of employers said they sought HR candidates with a bachelor’s degree in HR, while 59 percent said they favored candidates with a bachelor’s degree in business with an HR concentration. This research is consistent with data showing that what employers want most from their HR professionals is strong business acumen.

I would recommend that someone seeking a career in HR not only pursue a formal HR education but also select one of more than 450 SHRM-endorsed undergraduate HR programs. Here’s why these programs offer a competitive advantage: SHRM conducted extensive research to develop an HR Curriculum Guidebook and Templates that provide a framework for HR education based on studies with faculty members from top HR programs, recent college graduates and practitioners who hire recent graduates. The curriculum is validated every three to five years and is now aligned with the SHRM Competency Model

There is evidence that the gap between what is being taught at the college level and what HR practitioners are seeking from students entering the field has narrowed significantly since SHRM began its original research a decade ago. 

Another tangible benefit is that students graduating from SHRM-endorsed programs also have an opportunity to earn SHRM-CP certification prior to their peers in nonendorsed programs. Beginning this year, SHRM allows students who graduate from SHRM-endorsed programs to sit for the SHRM-CP exam right away. Graduates from non-SHRM-endorsed programs must have up to two years of HR experience prior to applying for the SHRM-CP exam—a significant disadvantage, as they are unable to demonstrate their level of HR expertise when entering the job market.

As SHRM certification continues to gain recognition throughout the HR and business communities, more companies value HR professionals who have earned these credentials, which not only demonstrate the expertise of the individual but also reflect the competencies needed to succeed in an HR career. 

“Our graduating students excel when they enter the job market because they experienced a curriculum grounded in extensive research based upon the needs of the HR profession,” says Indiana Institute of Technology professor Jeff Walls, SHRM-SCP.

In today’s workplace, organizations need HR leaders who have the foundational knowledge and competencies taught in a SHRM-endorsed HR program. Students seeking a career in HR should invest in an education that prepares them to meet the real-life challenges they will face as working professionals. For me, the most rewarding accolades my colleagues and I receive are when excited former students call to say, “I got the job!” Graduation from a SHRM-endorsed program increases these comments tenfold. 

LeAnn Brown, SHRM-SCP, is an associate professor of human resource management and chair of the Department of Management at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan.

 In today's business climate, on-the-job experience trumps whatever field you study.

There are many undergraduate programs that expose students to business concepts that are vital to success in an HR career. Employers are looking to hire well-rounded graduates who have a range of valuable soft skills such as communications and teamwork, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. While an HR degree certainly prepares those seeking an HR career, it’s more important to follow your own path—and to go the extra mile to gain real-life experience. Continuous learning is the key to success in today’s world.

Many of the most successful HR professionals I know earned undergraduate degrees in areas other than HR, which draws from myriad disciplines. If your passion leans toward organizational psychology, finance or information technology, go for it! 

Students serious about pursuing an HR career will need to develop their interpersonal skills, decision-making proficiency, leadership ability and technological prowess. I majored in human resource management as well as operations management with a minor in economics. I felt that this combination gave me a view of business management and an understanding of how different departments and teams work together to create a successful company—but that is just one possible path to a flourishing career in HR today.

Joining student and local chapters of SHRM and becoming a national member of SHRM can be a good way for aspiring professionals to set themselves apart. I’ve learned so much about the real world of HR through the connections I’ve made while competing in national SHRM Case Competitions, in which student teams apply their strategic thinking, leadership and presentation skills to address a workplace issue. 

However, it wasn’t until I pursued an internship that I became truly familiar with real-life HR issues. Students who complete an internship in their junior or senior year of college are more successful in entering the workforce. One reason is that work experience “can confirm, or rule out, a career choice. It can also help students cope with mistakes when the stakes aren’t so high,” says Caralee J. Adams, a contributing writer for Education Week. The value of work experience was confirmed by a recent SHRM survey: Employers said their No. 1 preference when evaluating and hiring entry-level HR professionals is “HR-related work experience.” It is also important to seek internship experience in the particular industry in which you aspire to work. For example, I am interested in science, technology, mathematics and engineering, so I applied for internships at companies in those sectors. 

The HR profession has one of the highest rates of annual job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, so there is no question that our field offers boundless opportunities. Going beyond obtaining an HR degree—or taking an alternate path to the profession—can set a student apart in today’s fiercely competitive job market. For example, the demand for HR analytics is only expected to grow in the coming years, so a course of study that includes data management and statistics could be a smart strategy. Instead of looking at this opinion as a negative view on having a degree in HR, I urge students to think critically about what they can do academically and experientially to gain the skills that will jump-start their HR careers. It’s never too early to find your bliss! 

 Heather Carlino is a 2017 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a former undergraduate SHRM chapter president, and an HR business partner associate at Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems in Orlando, Fla.


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