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How to make the right start in HR

Published on: 7 Nov 2016

Stephanie Sparrow looks at the jobs and skills you need to launch an HR career

Employment specialists agree that even in this uncertain world, opportunities abound for an HR career.

“HR is probably the fastest-growing business profession”, says Paul Berwick, manager at Michael Page Human Resources. HR is now (or becoming) an integral part of the business, he says, as is shown by the amount of HR Directors on main company boards.

Yet, the early stages of an HR career can be hard to navigate. Unless applicants are on a defined graduate scheme, they have to look for entry-level HR jobs, but what are these jobs and what should they aim for?

Look for entry-level jobs

The most common entry roles to the profession are HR administrator, as can be found on PersonnelToday Jobs. “Other common titles are HR co-ordinator and the newer role of HR MI administrator,” adds Barney Ely, director at Hays Human Resources.

Do not judge a job on its title alone. Job titles can be misleading and candidates are advised to abandon their preconceptions. “Think beyond the job titles”, says Susannah Clements, director of Ferry Path Partners, a specialist in HR recruitment. Clements, who is a former deputy chief executive of the CIPD, points out that the context and the content of the job, and its potential, are more important than how they are labelled.

“There isn’t a standard HR officer role, or HR administrator role”, she says. “A lot of jobs depend on the organisation, and you should always look at the job description and think where the job could take you next.”

In addition, today’s HR, particularly in newer, leaner, private sector organisations, is tasked with finding talent and thinking widely about the people function. It needs to analyse data. It needs to manage social media as a tool for employee communications. These requirements are shaping entry-level roles.   

Assess your skills

Clements says that HR entry-level roles are being filled with candidates who are “numerate, techy and digitally savvy.”

Ely agrees that such skills are needed for management information tasks but adds that more than technical flair is required.

“IT skills, such as use of Excel for HR MI reporting are important, but candidates must have the interpersonal skills for what is still a people-focused profession, and they cannot hide behind a computer”, he says.

“Strong organisational abilities and good time management are also essential. And employers are looking for candidates who are entrepreneurial and able to make changes to help HR deliver commercial value”, he says. 

Such a broad range of requirements means that recruiters often consider a larger pool of school leavers and graduates, and that a wider variety of entry-level jobs, in reward or analytics , as well as administrator roles, act as a gateway to specialist HR jobs later in careers.

Ely has also seen more HR roles made available in shared service centres across the UK. “These roles tend to be more administrative and focused on one function within HR, and require less specific HR experience at entry level. Smaller organisations also offer very valuable hands-on experience in HR and exposure to the broad range of HR functions”, he says. 

Qualifications and experience

Specialist HR qualifications are expected, as details in this recent article (How to start a career in HR), but employers are also impressed by graduate or postgraduate degrees in business or HR from leading universities, because they indicate that candidates a broad view of the discipline.

Qualifications should be supplemented with practical experience and entry- level candidates should gather it as soon as they can, says Berwick at Michael Page. “Aim to build contacts in HR, look at internships and become involved in local CIPD events”, he says.

If you possess these qualities, turn them into a job offer by thinking about how you communicate at interview. “HR professionals probably need to embrace the culture, ethics and values of their business more than any other discipline, so know what these are”, says Berwick. He advises talking to as many people as possible about the business before the interview “so you speak their ‘language’.”

Build for the future

Careers are more like marathons than sprints. Experts agree that you should build carefully on the good start you have created for yourself. Make a judgement about how long to stay in that early role -- two years is seen as a respectable length of time.

“Ideally, when you are no longer learning, that is the time to move on,” says Berwick. “If you can do this within the same company, either by promotion or a sideways move, then you can show progression, whilst also showing stability and commitment to your employer.” 

But always make the most of the learning opportunities and broad overview which an entry level role can offer.

“Gaining experience is ‘money in the bank’ later on”, says Clements. “The important thing is to play to your strengths at the beginning of your career when there is more freedom to move around departments and develop your skills.”