How to Get an Entry-Level Work in HR

It’s one of the most frequently asked questions at the Society For Human Resource management’s (SHRM’s) Facebook and Twitter channels.

“How can I get an entry-level HR position?”

With a wide range of colleges HR courses available, and executives are focusing more on the workforce being a valuable strategic asset, you’d think that more organisations and colleges’ career centers would be able and able to offer straight paths to HR just like SHRM does. While some schools have been effective at helping their graduates break into HR, a lot of HR professionals say that their efforts at other institutions fall short.

The society issues an Certificate of Learning to HR students who have completed an SHRM Assurance of Learning Assessment. It also provides an approved benchmark for non-traditional and traditional students who have no HR work experience, the certificate demonstrates that they have mastered the fundamental knowledge required to be a successful professional. It also provides them with an advantage over the other HR professionals who are entry-level.

Certain schools don’t tailor their academic or placement activities in accordance with the reality of the workplace, a handful of HR experts said. A few companies aren’t clear about what they’d like their HR functions to do in the first place.

In the businesses that do have specific expectations regarding HR, the expectations may vary in a wide range. In some organizations, the department reports under the executive director. While in other instances, it’s part of the chief financial officer’s responsibilities. Some businesses assign HR little more than administration, while some view their workforce as an integral part of its overall success. As a result, how a graduate finds an entrance point can vary depending on the employer.

“There’s an unclear path due to the broad nature of HR,” said Catherine E. Preim SHRM-CP, HR manager at Philadelphia-based transportation consultants SYSTRA USA. Indeed, HR’s responsibilities encompass everything from benefits administration and the management of diversity to workforce planning as well as technology.

In general there are three ways to get to an entry-level position within 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.
  • In the past, I have worked for several years as an operating manager at the same company, and then shifting into HR.

Here are some typical strategies for attracting the attention HR’s top hiring executives.

Have a go

It is essential to have work experience, regardless of whether you majored in HR. “Don’t think just because you’ve earned a degree is enough to be qualified for the role,” warned Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, chief executive of Xceptional HR in Oklahoma City and founder of

“You depend heavily on your experience with HR.” mentioned Tracy Burns who is the chief executive officer of Northeast Human Resources Association in Concord, Mass., an SHRM chapter. “You have to … put what you’ve been taught in your classroom in the real-world.” Along with all the employment laws in place, the regulations, and compliance concerns that go along with HR, it’s “a risky profession, and it is important to understand how to do what you’re allowed to do.”

How can you get this experience?

Sharlyn Lauby is president of the South Florida-based training consultant ITM Group and creator of the blog HR Bartender, suggested three methods:

  • Internships not only offer hands-on experience but also offer exposure to prospective employers.
  • Being involved in a SHRM student chapter, which she called “a great way to network with practitioners and other providers.”
  • Researching opportunities with HR Service providers who “have tremendous HR expertise in-house.”

“Internships are the No. top in importance” Miller-Merrell stated. “If you’re lucky enough to have one year of experience while you’re in school, you’ll get an advantage.”

Build Relations

“HR employees are excellent networkers and they love helping people succeed, therefore take advantage of their natural abilities,” advised Mike Kahn, SHRM-SCP, executive senior consultant of 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 could be crucial to learn how to become the company.”

This brings us to the issue of how 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 it’s the SHRM chapter, a particular conference , or a state council meeting, show up where your bosses would be,” she said. “If you’re the only collegehigh school senior there, you’re only competing against yourself.”

Many students, she explained, don’t reach out to professionals who can assist them. Although she’s been in contact with a number of student HR organizations, Miller-Merrell said, “I’d say I’ve had one student get in touch with me in the last five years. This means there’s plenty of chances to build connections.”

Be a business person

Be aware that human resource management is most definitely an essential business function. If you believe it’s just for you because you’re an “people particular,” You’re probably on wrong track.

“It’s about understanding business and applying people strategies,” said Caliopie Walsh Vice President of HR at Experian Marketing Services in New York City. “During interviews many applicants at the entry level say they enjoy HR because they enjoy people. That’s the least convincing answer they can offer. In the end, a good HR person understands the business and can apply people strategies in order to assist it to succeed.”

“Companies require strong business professionals with HR skills,” Kahn said. “They are seeking business acumen, capability in analytics and systems.” In fact many believe that the most effective HR professionals are those who’ve acquired an experience in the field of business first, and then later made the switch to HR.

It’s not an entry-level option. After having spent years gaining working experience, these professionals typically work with a higher level of experience. Miller-Merrell also pointed out that this is a path that can present difficulties “because there are a lot of [HR] nuances you have to learn.”

Additionally, according to Tameka Renae Stegall, an HR company partner for the energy services company Schlumberger in Houston individuals who are coming in from other industries often are met with resistance from HR’s management. “The problem is that when they check out resumes, and they’re going through boxes,” she said. “So they’re not saying “This person’s been a supervisor. They can be adapted to HR. If they spot the senior person who’s going to be more expensive and choose to hire a student and they’ll pay less.”

Manage Your Expectations

Additionally, it’s essential for those who are just starting out to manage their expectations. While it’s not always case, some graduates balk over the type of work they’re expected by the time they first start their career. “In HR, you get a four-year degree and the first job is administrative. It’s also where the profession was born,” Burns said.

Furthermore, this type of work is “foundational,” Stegall said. “You must be able to adapt and be ready to start at the bottom since that’s what you’ll need to understand all of the pieces, and HR is full of moving parts.”

Preim summed it up nicely: “It’s like any other career. It’s unrealistic to believe you’ll become an HR manager without prior expertise. You’ll need to get those feet toes wet.”

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