New EPAC Members Offer Advice on Preparing for HR Career

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek March 2, 2022
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career tips

​What are some classes that can best prepare students for a career in human resources?

The five new members of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Emerging Professionals Advisory Council (EPAC) talked with SHRM Online about the classes they found most valuable and which ones they wish they had taken to better prepare for their careers in HR.

Some EPAC members—like Alexandra Cafferty, SHRM-CP—are new to a full-time HR role. Others, such as Angie Herrera, SHRM-CP, have logged more time in the field.

ALEXANDRA CAFFERTY is an HR specialist at Alliant, headquartered in Brewster, N.Y. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master's degree in strategic HR management from Sacred Heart University. She has been working full time in HR since March 2019. 

Best college classes she took to prepare to work in HR: HR Operations 1 and 2.
"We covered employee engagement, performance management, HR tech, learning agility, training and development, and recruitment and selection. These two courses helped me the most because the topics were pretty well-covered," she said. "They helped me the most with passing my SHRM-CP certification [exam]."

College class she wished she had taken to prepare her to work in HR: Employee investigations.
"It's such an important area of HR. No matter the role you play—whether in benefits, learning and development, compensation, recruitment—every HR professional should have some basic knowledge of HR law and employee relations and investigations."
She took a three-month online course, "Employee Relations and Investigations Certificate Program," through Cornell University in 2021 to learn more.

Other advice: "If you're interested in taking charge [on the job] … and implementing ideas, a smaller organization would be a great fit. If you're looking for something already in place that you just want to improve upon, a bigger organization would be perfect."

ALEX E. ALSTON has been director of HR at the Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs, Colo., since 2020 and will take on the new role of corporate director of HR at the San Antonio location in mid-March. He has a bachelor's degree in restaurant hotel institutional management from Texas Tech University. 

Best college class: Any of the management classes.
"I took [one on] HR in the hospitality industry," said Alston, who still refers to the textbook. "There's a huge management aspect to this [job]."

College class he wished he had taken: More psychology classes.
"Being an HR professional in a small town," such as Pagosa Springs, population of around 2,200, "you tend to take on more of a coach mentality, especially with a lot of the hourly associates. They're just needing somebody to talk to" whether it's a personal issue or related to their career, he said. "I've had recent [employee] conversations around financial planning and how to create a budget."

The challenge of working in hospitality: The huge amount of turnover, "especially right now with COVID and unemployment. It creates a challenge on the HR side to convince people to come into the hospitality industry." 

NICOLE GARCIA, SHRM-CP, is CEO and founder of HR consultancy Integrate & Elevate, Los Angeles. She has worked in HR since 2014 for companies throughout California, including as leave of absence claims manager for Cigna, HR administrator for National Debt Relief, HR generalist equivalent for Irell & Manella, head of HR/senior manager at Farm Sanctuary, and human capital consultant for Deloitte. She has a bachelor's degree in business administration from Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.; a master's degree in HR management from the University of Southern California; and a certificate in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace from the University of South Florida. 

Best college class: "My class in HR strategy has helped me the most in my HR career. It focused on providing the business case for initiatives that would provide a return on investment for the organization and improve bottom-line results," she said. The class helped students better communicate the value of HR, such as by "improving performance or productivity by providing learning development or fostering a culture of engagement in order to achieve the organization's goal."

College class she wished she had taken: "I wish I had taken an introductory accounting class to prepare me to work in HR. As a strategic leader and advisor in the organizations I serve, I often review enterprisewide and departmental financial statements. It would have been helpful to have a baseline understanding of how to read financial statements and how each type of statement interacts with the other. This would have given me the necessary context to make more informed recommendations and be a highly effective business partner."

Other advice: Consider creating your own personal "board of directors" to give you feedback on your career. Garcia's advisors include the CHRO at a former employer, a CHRO from a nonprofit, an emotional intelligence coach she heard speak on campus, and the CEO of an investor board. She said she'd also like to add a CFO to the mix.

"I meet with them at least every quarter," she said, adding that she jots down questions ahead of the informal, individual consultations. For example, she might ask one if she's on track in her approach to reviewing a performance management system or seek advice in reading a financial statement. 

ANGIE HERRERA is senior HR partner representative at United Airlines, Chicago. She has worked in HR since 2003 and holds an associate degree in computer science from Fox College in Bedford Park, Ill., and an undergraduate degree in organizational leadership from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has her SHRM-PMQ and SHRM Essentials of Human Resources certificate. She is a certified administrative professional, has an organizational management certification from the International Association of Administrative Professionals and completed the Women's Leadership Certificate Program: Hispanic Alliance Career Enhancement. 

Best college class: "Leadership development was a critical class," she said. "Communication is so important, but not only communication but knowing ourselves [really] well: What is our leadership style? Having strong emotional intelligence. The importance of being an understanding and empathic leader.
"You have to understand people … [and] see things through a different lens and that includes diversity of thought."

College class she wished she had taken: "I wish the SHRM BoCK (the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge, now called the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge or the SHRM BASK) would be offered in all the HR curriculum. That's one that would have prepared me 10 years ago that would have helped me tremendously."

Other advice: "Be curious and ask questions. If you dig deeper, there is more to [an employee situation]. Get to know people and get to know where they're coming from. Don't be so quick to say no. Even when you have to say no, explain the why behind the decision; oftentimes it makes all the difference" when you can explain the reasoning. 

WILLIAM W. SPENCER III, SHRM-CP, is HR business partner at Innovative Defense Technologies in Arlington, Va. He has worked in HR since 2019 at his current employer. In his former position of HR generalist II, his responsibilities included talent acquisition, employee relations, total rewards and HR operations. He currently is responsible for his organization's workforce programs, performance management and talent development. He received his bachelor's degree in business administration in 2018 and his master's degree in management and HR in 2019 from the University of Tennessee. He also completed three HR internships while an undergraduate. 

Best college class: Organizational Behavior and Development. "This class assisted in my ability to understand, predict and influence human behavior at work," he said. "Separately, the material covered also enabled me to strategize and develop initiatives that enhance workforce capabilities. 

"Serving as an HR business partner within the technology industry has made me realize that professional development is not only vital when it comes to an organization's success, but also important as it relates to employee growth and satisfaction. We all have an innate desire to continue learning, and that desire is only satisfied when organizations provide opportunities for professional growth."

College class he wished he had taken: Psychology.  
"Having a better understanding of how people think and interact would certainly be beneficial in the employee relations function within the field of HR," he said. "As HR professionals know, people—and the issues they experience—are complex. Therefore, many of the situations human resources professionals encounter require emotional intelligence, empathy and sound logic." 

EPAC members will give more career advice during a panel discussion at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans and virtually.

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