How to get an entry-level position in HR

It’s among the most frequently asked questions on the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Instagram channels.

“How do I find an entry-level job in HR?”

With a number of college HR programs on offer and the executives tend to be more focused on the workforce as strategic resources, you’d think more organizations as well as college career centers would be able to map out straight paths to HR similar to the way that SHRM does. While some institutions have been successful in helping their graduates gain entry into HR, lot of HR professionals say that their efforts at other institutions do not meet the mark.

The society gives a Certificate of Learning to HR students who have completed an SHRM Assurance of Learning Assessment. The certificate is not only an internationally recognized reference point for both traditional and nontraditional students with no or little professional experience in HR. The certification proves that they’ve mastered an understanding of the basics required to be a successful HR professional. It also gives them an advantage over other entry-level HR candidates.

Some schools don’t tailor their placement and academic programs to the needs of the workplace, a handful people working in HR told us. There are some businesses that don’t clearly define what they’d like their HR functions to achieve in the in the first place.

In the businesses that do have defined expectations for HR, the expectations for those employees vary in a wide range. In some organizations, the department is accountable directly to the chief executive. At others, it’s part of the portfolio of the chief financial officer. Certain organizations have HR departments that are responsible for nothing more than administrative duties, while others view their workforce as a vital component of their success. Thus, how students are able to get an entry point can be very different from one employer to the next.

“There’s no clear pathway because HR is so diverse,” said Catherine E. Preim, SHRM-CP, HR manager for Philadelphia-based advisory firm SYSTRA USA. Indeed, HR’s responsibilities encompass anything from the administration of benefits and diversification to workforce planning and technology.

In general there are three possible routes to a job entry-level position the field:

  • A college degree in HR.
  • A degree in a related subject, like business or industrial/organizational psychology, then applying those skills to HR by earning appropriate certifications.
  • For several years, I was as an operational worker at one of the companies, then moving into HR.

Here are some strategies to get the attention of the HR’s managers who hire.

Learn from Experience

It is essential to have work experience, even if you’re a major in HR. “Don’t think that just because you’ve earned a degree that you’re competent for the role,” warned Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM, SCP, chief executive for Xceptional HR in Oklahoma City and the founder of

“You are heavily reliant on your previous experience of HR professionals,” added Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association in Concord, Mass., which is a chapter of SHRM. “You need to … use what you’ve studied in your classroom to the real-world.” There are a myriad of laws pertaining to employment regulation, regulations and compliance questions associated with HR, it can be “a hazardous profession, which is why you should be aware what you can and cannot do.”

How do you gain that experience?

Sharlyn Lauby President of South Florida-based ITM Group, a training consulting company ITM Group and creator of the blog HR Bartender, suggested three ways to approach the problem:

  • Internships are a great way to not only provide hands-on work experience but also expose you to potential employers.
  • Being involved in a SHRM student chapter, which she described as “a great way to network with practitioners and providers.”
  • Researching opportunities with HR Service suppliers, who “have tremendous HR expertise in-house.”

“Internships are No. number one in importance” Miller-Merrell said. “If you’re fortunate enough to earn one year of experience while you’re at school, then you’ll have some advantages.”

Create Relationships

“HR individuals are excellent networkers as they want to help people succeed. So take advantage of their natural abilities,” advised Mike Kahn SHRM-SCP, executive director in Human Resources Search at the Lucas Group in Houston. “Network like crazy. Because there are so many variations in the way they handle HR, it can be essential to discover how to work in the company.”

It raises the question of how best to network. Though some answers may be obvious–reach out to alumni, attend meetings of the local SHRM chapter and get involved with other professional associations–Miller-Merrell went a bit further. “Whether you’re at the SHRM chapter or a particular conference or a state council meeting, be there where your bosses are,” she said. “If you’re not the onlysenior there, then you’re only competing against you.”

A lot of students, she said aren’t reaching out to those who can assist them. Though she speaks to many student HR organizations, Miller-Merrell said, “I’d say I’ve had one student call me in the last five years. There’s plenty of opportunity to develop connections.”

Consider yourself a Business Person

Be aware that human resource management is most definitely part of business. If you believe it’s just for you because you’re a “people individual,” that’s the wrong track.

“It’s about knowing the business and implementing human strategies,” said Caliopie Walsh the vice president of HR at Experian Marketing Services in New York City. “During interviews most new applicants say they love HR because they like people. That’s not the best answer you can give. Most importantly, a successful HR professional is knowledgeable about the business and is able to use people strategies to help it succeed.”

“Companies need strong business leaders who have HR expertise,” Kahn said. “They require business acumen and the ability to analyze data and develop systems.” In fact, many say that the most successful HR professionals are those who’ve gained work experience before they transitioned to HR.

It’s not an entry-level option. After having spent years gaining skills in the field, professionals generally come at a more advanced level. Miller-Merrell also pointed out, this path poses challenges “because there are a lot of [HR] nuances which you must learn.”

Furthermore, according to Tameka Renae Stegall, an HR associate at energy services firm Schlumberger in Houston the applicants who come in from other industries often have to contend with resistance from HR’s managers. “The problem is that when they examine resumes, you’re just checking boxes off,” she said. “So they’re not saying “This person’s been a supervisor. They may be able to change to HR. They might also see somebody who’s senior that will cost more money , so they select a student with a lower cost.”

Manage Your Expectations

It’s also crucial for those who are just starting out to manage their expectations. While it’s not always scenario, some graduates aren’t thrilled at the sort of work they’re required to do when they start out. “In HR, you’ll earn four years of education and your first job you get feels like administrative. The profession took off,” Burns said.

Also, the job is “foundational,” Stegall said. “You need to be flexible and be willing to start from the bottom, because that’s the only way learn to appreciate all the pieces, and HR has lots of moving parts.”

Preim stated it well: “It’s like any other job. It’s unrealistic to believe you’ll become an HR manager with no expertise. It’s time to get your feet on the ground.”

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