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How to get your First Job in HR

Written by: John Eccleston
Published on: 30 Jun 2014

HR is a varied sector that opens the door to lots of different aspects of business and offers the potential to develop and progress in your career. However, it’s a popular profession and there can often be competition for roles. 

First Job in HR [square]

Before diving headlong into your job search, do your research.  Explore the different strands of HR and decide which of these areas you want to work in, and identify which are most closely related to the skills and experience you already have. HR encompasses a range of individual functions, and some of these might be more suitable for you than others. 

If you have a related academic background (such as an HR degree), it will of course be easier to break into the sector. However, you will still need to be realistic about your prospects. When entering into any profession for the first time you might need to consider relatively junior roles that will help you get your career off to a start. This is particularly true if your skills and experience are limited.

Don’t be put off by this, however – you have to start somewhere and there are plenty of development opportunities in HR.

Get networking

Attend industry events where you can meet experienced HR professionals and hear their career stories, and connect with people and groups on social networks. As members of a people-focused sector, many HR professionals are a great source of information and guidance about careers.

The HR calendar is a busy one – there are industry events and conferences all year round. Even the events that aren’t careers-focused will often include information and presentations on HR practice and policy, which is useful information for somebody starting out in the profession.

Knowledge is key

An HR qualification, such as those offered by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), could improve your chances of securing a role. However, qualifications aren’t always a prerequisite – especially for entry-level roles, and some employers will allow you to study for qualifications while you’re in the job – and will often pay or contribute to training costs on your behalf. 

Even if you don’t go as far as obtaining a formal qualification, get swotting. Keep abreast of employment law, for example, as legal compliance is one of the key functions of any HR department. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked about recent or forthcoming employment law changes in a job interview; stay up to date on what’s happening in that side of the sector.

As well as this, keep an eye on areas such as the labour market, government policy changes or recruitment trends – these are all central to the HR world.

Read some of the numerous industry titles to stay updated on what’s happening in HR, and also maintain an interest in wider business and commercial topics, as most employers will look for this broader awareness in addition to HR knowledge.

Are you experienced?

If you’re currently in a non-HR role and don’t have much relevant on-the-job experience, perhaps liaise with your current employer to gain some experience in its HR function. 

Ask if a secondment to the HR department is an option, or explore whether you can work closely with the HR team on aspects of your current role.

If these options aren’t available to you, consider taking on voluntary work in an HR-related role, or look into unpaid internships. Look upon this as making an investment in the career you want.

Make the most of your skills

As with any move into a new sector, think about your previous professional and academic experience and consider how these make you suitable for an HR position.

For example, are you an effective project manager, are your organisational skills up to scratch, are you able to liaise with colleagues and stakeholders at different levels – and of course, are you a ‘people person’?

Look at some typical HR job ads and get a feel for what skills and profile they’re looking for – then use this to identify the qualities you could bring to a similar role. Any subsequent applications should focus on these strengths.

Many non-HR roles involve tasks and responsibilities that are relevant to HR. Have you been involved (even in a small way) in a recruitment process, for example? Or have you handled transactional responsibilities such as processing invoices or dealing with suppliers and contributors? Perhaps you’ve mentored somebody or taken part in a buddy scheme at some point – these are all great examples of skills that could give you an advantage in your HR job search.

Also, don’t forget that HR doesn’t operate in a vacuum – it is an important part of any organisation and needs to operate effectively with other business areas. So, make the most of any commercial or strategic experience you have, as this will complement the more HR-focused skills on your CV.