How to Earn an Entry-Level Job in HR

By Mark Feffer January 6, 2020
business woman reaches out to shake hands

"How do I find an entry-level job in HR?"

It's one of the most common questions posed on the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) social media channels, and you might think there is an obvious answer. After all, many colleges offer degrees in HR management, and top executives say their companies' workforces are strategic assets, prompting more people to seek HR training and certification.

However, relatively few employers and college career centers have mapped out clear paths into the profession, which creates greater career challenges as HR's role continues to evolve.

Employers expect their HR staff to be on top of issues that go far beyond recruiting, employee engagement and compliance. "Being a businessperson first and an HR professional second is the most common theme we're hearing from both chief people officers and CEOs," said Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association in Concord, Mass., a SHRM chapter. "I'm not suggesting you need to know finances like the CFO [chief financial officer] or marketing like the CMO [chief marketing officer], but as an HR professional or someone who wants to be an HR professional, you need to have a deeper understanding of the business you're in."

In addition, the use of workforce data is now an integral aspect of HR at many organizations. "[HR's role] has evolved from gathering and reporting on things like total compensation, demographics and cost-per-hire to true people analytics," Burns said. As a result, more HR roles require "the ability to analyze information on a deeper level."

Even among businesses that have clearly defined HR's responsibilities, expectations vary widely. At some, the HR department reports to the CEO. At others, it's part of the CFO's portfolio. Some companies still task HR with little more than administration, while others regard complex workforce management and planning as critical components of success. As a result, for graduates looking for a position in HR, finding 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, senior manager of people solutions with Chicago-based advisory, tax and assurance firm Baker Tilly. Indeed, the function encompasses responsibilities as varied as benefits administration, talent acquisition and technology adoption.

Finding a Way In

Experts generally agree that three paths most often lead to an entry-level position in the HR field:

  • Earning a bachelor's or master's degree in HR, plus having some basic work experience in the field.
  • Earning a degree in a related subject, such as business, industrial/organizational psychology or even analytics, then applying those skills to HR through basic work experience and by earning appropriate certifications. (Students who are earning an HR degree at a university whose program aligns with SHRM's HR curriculum guidelines may take the SHRM-CP certification exam in their final year of study.)
  • Working for several years in an operational role at a company and then transitioning into HR.

Here are some common strategies for attracting the attention of HR's hiring managers once you've taken one of those three paths.

Get Experience

Even if you majored in HR, you need to show prospective employers that you've spent time on the job, even if it was part time or an internship. "Don't think just because you have a degree you're qualified for the role," warned Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, founder and chief innovation officer at Workology in Austin, Texas.

Burns added, "You have to be able to [show that you can] apply what you've learned in the classroom to the real world." With the many employment laws, regulations and compliance issues inherent in an HR role, many of which differ by state, HR graduates often find that it can be "a risky profession, and you have to learn what you can and cannot do."

How do you get that work experience? Several approaches have stood the test of time as the best way to start, said Sharlyn Lauby, president of South Florida-based training consultancy ITM Group and creator of the blog HR Bartender:

  • Taking an internship, which not only offers hands-on experience but also provides exposure to prospective employers.
  • Getting involved with a SHRM student chapter, which Lauby called "a great way to network with practitioners and providers" who can offer full-time, part-time or consulting opportunities.
  • Exploring job openings with HR service providers and vendors, which "have tremendous HR expertise in house" and allow you to learn the profession.

"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."

Be a Businessperson

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, New York City-based chief people officer at investment research firm Third Bridge Group. "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."

Many HR professionals say 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 enter the profession 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" to be successful.

Those moving in from other departments often run into resistance from HR's own managers, said Tameka Renae Stegall, SHRM-SCP, Houston-area HR services manager at energy services company Schlumberger. "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.' Instead, they see someone more senior who's going to cost more money."

However, even entry-level candidates can earn a leg up by exhibiting their business chops, said Mike Kahn, SHRM-SCP, executive senior partner of HR search at the Lucas Group in Houston. "Demonstrating and articulating business acumen is even more important today."

Kahn urges candidates to understand how to interpret profit-and-loss statements and earnings reports, then incorporate that knowledge into conversations with prospective employers. And, he added, they should be able to speak intelligently about each organization's industry and competitive landscape.

Susan Baranowsky, SHRM-SCP, corporate director of human resources for Refined Hospitality in New Hope, Pa., explained, "As the HR professional for the organization, your responsibility aligns with the business in employment matters. If you don't understand what your business is about—including the mission, strategic goals and long-range plans—you won't be able to provide that support."

Build Relationships

"HR people are good networkers, and they like to help people succeed, so take advantage of their nature," advised Kahn. "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."

So what is the best way to network? Though some ways may be obvious—reach out to alumni, attend meetings of the local SHRM chapter and get involved with other professional associations—Miller-Merrell suggested going 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 professionals who could help them. Though Miller-Merrell said she speaks to a number of student HR organizations,  she added, "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."

Have Realistic Expectations

Finally, it's important for entry-level candidates to manage their expectations. 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 added. "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." 

Catherine 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."

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