Your Career Q&A: Do You Need a College Degree to Work in HR?

By Martin Yate Nov 1, 2016
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With more than a decade of HR experienceor in some cases, much more than a decadeis a college degree necessary to land an HR job? Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

Question 1: I have 10 years of HR experience. I have been out of the HR world for five years and just recently stepped back in as an HR department of one for a small company of 30 employees. I do not have a college degree. I am studying to take my SPHR (held my PHR previously). I'm curious, is there a need for a degree at this point in my career? Thanks!

Question 2: I have been an HR generalist for 32 years now. Back when I started in HR, you did not need a college degree. I received my PHR and my SHRM-CP. Everywhere I apply, the application process is online, and if you do not have a bachelor's degree it kicks your application out. How can I get someone to look past the lack of degree and see my experience?

We have had a handful of questions similar to the ones above in recent months, and while every situation is unique, there are some commonalities that can be helpful in choosing a path to overcome educational roadblocks.

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In a world where the nature of every job rapidly evolves, everyone is constantly learning. Consequently, proof of learning ability underlies every hire and promotion. Possession of a degree gives employers a snapshot of a job candidate's proven analytical abilities and training in core skills and shows the candidate's commitment to professional development and ability to stay with long-term challenges. This is not to say that you lack these skills, just that these are some of the ways employers look at degree holders.

When employers use possession of a college degree as a resume-screening criteria, if you don't have one, your resume will stay hidden in the depths of the hiring company's applicant database. This means that if, for whatever reason, you did not complete post-secondary education, many doors are slammed shut before you even get a chance to meet a potential employer.

However, there are ways you can prop that door open.

My advice is to start taking classes toward getting your degree, in the way that works best for you. Start by evaluating the reputation of different online universities, as they offer far more flexibility for a working professional—you can ask colleagues on the Society for Human Resource Management Facebook and LinkedIn groups about quality options for appropriate online degrees. The college where you earn your degree can be a plus, but the fact that you have one (related to HR would be my advice) or are working toward one is far more important than the accrediting university.

You should next check to see if you can get credit for your work experience and professional accreditations. Then evaluate all of the above against time, cost and benefit considerations.

Many universities will allow you to enroll by class to control costs so you can enroll in one course or two at a time to fit your budget and time constraints.

Then you can add that degree under the education section of your resume, perhaps like this:

Education

B.S. Human Resource Administration (anticipated) May 2018

SHRM-CP, June 2016

PHR, March 2014

This will make your resume more discoverable in the initial resume database screening process and give it a much better shot at passing a recruiter's initial screening. When you meet face to face at an interview, you will have the opportunity to explain your situation and talk about the credits you already have. If employers see that you are committed and have the other necessary skills for the job, your odds of getting job offers or promotions increase dramatically.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. 

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