Job Market Improving for HR Professionals

Demand and pay are highest for those skilled in compensation and benefits

By Bill Leonard Dec 19, 2011

If the number of job openings posted online during the third and fourth quarters of 2011 is a good indicator, then the job market for HR professionals is definitely on the upswing.

This is good news to thousands of HR practitioners who lost their jobs or have been underemployed in the economic turmoil following the “Great Recession” of 2008-09.

When compared to 2009, the number of job openings posted on the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) HR Jobs website in 2011 has increased more than 70 percent. According to SHRM statistics, 4,686 job openings were listed on HR Jobs in 2009, and, as of mid-December, the number of jobs posted in 2011 was on pace to surpass 8,000.

“We’ve definitely seen a turnaround in the job market, especially in the last two quarters of 2011,” said John Challenger, CEO for Challenger, Gray and Christmas in Chicago and a well-known job market analyst. “The market for HR-related jobs is fairly reflective of the overall job market. There are signs of strength in some segments and some regions and not so good in others.”

Estimates vary, but many economists say that approximately 7.5 million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the summer of 2007, which means that nearly 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce was laid off. No one is sure how many HR professionals lost their jobs during the recession, but Challenger and other analysts say it should be comparable to losses in the overall job market.

A Significant Hit to HR Jobs

According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 127,000 managers in HR, compensation and benefits, and training and development are working in the U.S. The BLS numbers do not include executive-level positions, management and employment attorneys, labor relations specialists, consultants and independent contractors who might do HR work.

Some job market analysts estimate that the number of HR professionals in the U.S. easily tops 500,000.

Using that estimate and assuming that HR is representative of the overall workforce, then approximately 43,000 HR professionals were unemployed and looking for work in the U.S. in late 2011.

Some analysts say that the official U.S. unemployment rate is higher than the federal government reports, saying that the government estimate does not reflect job market conditions accurately. These experts contend that the government statistics do not account for the several million people who work part time in menial jobs or have abandoned their job searches.

HR as a Job Market Barometer

“HR-related jobs still can be a pretty good barometer of the overall job market, because HR jobs are pretty evenly dispersed through all industries and regions,” Challenger said. “That being said, things are looking better, not great though, for HR-related jobs and for the entire job market.”

Beth Ann Finis, a principal with Mercer’s Information Products Solutions Business, agrees with Challenger that the market conditions are improving for HR jobs. Finis analyzed pay raise estimates for 2012 collected by Mercer. She said that pay raises for HR-related jobs are right in line with the average pay raises that employers will be offering in 2012. Respondents to the Mercer polls are projecting these at between 2.5 percent and 2.8 percent.

“The pay raise data can be a very good indicator of employer need and demand for the services of HR professionals,” Finis said. “And right now, we’re seeing some improvement in job market conditions.”

The statistics seem to indicate that these improvements are modest at best, and some segments of the job market appear to be hotter than others. Finis and Challenger said that HR professionals with specialist skills—especially compensation and benefits—are in high demand. Said Challenger, “Comp and benefits jobs are hot right now, with employers vying for the best talent they can find.”

Finis was a bit more guarded in her assessment, saying that statistics show clearly that comp and benefits professionals will be receiving better-than-average pay raises and will command good starting salaries.

Hot Prospects for Consulting Roles

Another hot segment of the HR-related job market appears to be consulting and contract positions, according to Stephen Coco, a principal in the talent and HR solutions practice of Buck Consultants.

“One trend we are seeing is that HR work is becoming more project-based, so employers are hiring HR consultants to work and complete a project and then move on,” Coco said. “HR professionals who have experience in project management are definitely in demand.”

Even though these jobs tend to be temporary in nature, generally six- to 18-month assignments, Coco said project work can offer job seekers a great opportunity.

“Consulting or contract work like this can be the greatest job interview there is,” he said. “Employers get a chance to work with you and see what you can do.”

Coco said that just getting out and participating at some level in the workforce is essential to any serious job search. Challenger and Finis agreed, saying that face-to-face networking is the best way to land a job.

“It’s all about getting out, meeting people and having them remember who you are,” Challenger said. “I tell job seekers this all the time, that they should become a member and then volunteer and participate in professional groups or associations.”

Challenger and Finis recommended that job searchers consider honing their management skills by taking courses at a local college or pursuing educational programs offered by associations like SHRM, WorldatWork and the American Management Association. Many of these groups offer discounts or deferred payment arrangements to unemployed professionals. For example, SHRM offers a one-year transitional membership to members who are unemployed at the time of renewal. Click here for details.

Best Tools for a Successful Job Search

When asked what tools work best for finding a job, the experts agreed that a comprehensive and serious job search can’t depend solely on one tool such as online searches or frequenting social media sites.

“It’s a combination of all these things,” Challenger said. “Successful job candidates will use things like social media to enhance their job searches and use it to build on face-to-face networking. You really can’t just sit at home and think you’re going to get a job by perusing online job boards and frequenting LinkedIn and Twitter.”

The experts interviewed for this article agreed however, that online job board and social media sites can be excellent ways to start a job search and can point you in the right direction.

“Online job portals and social media can help you to understand what positions are available and what employers are looking for,” Challenger said. “But the real legwork and effort in getting a job is much more than just sitting and looking at job listings on your computer.”

Finis said that she had experience in the type of job-search techniques Challenger described. She found her job with Mercer in August 2011 after several months of looking. She said that it was the result of a “total job marketing effort” to find the job she wanted.

“You really have to get out there and market yourself,” she said. “I created a marketing and job search plan for myself, and I am very pleased with the results.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

Related Links:

The Jobs Blog: Key Is Skill Sets, SHRM Online Staffing Management, December 2011

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