HR careers: where to specialise and why

If you are new to HR and think that you might want to specialise, the best advice would be to work in as many different aspects of the HR function as you can.

Find out what you enjoy, suggests Helen Straw, founder and managing director of consultancy The Personnel Partnership. “Do you have a passion for a specific element of HR that you know you would happily deal with day in, day out? If so, then specialising could be for you,” she says.

The decision to specialise will depend on a number of factors: your career ambitions in the long term (HR directors tend to have combined a specialist and generalist background, or have moved around the business); your strengths (are you good with numbers? Are you a natural communicator?); and your working style (do you enjoy a lot of variety or do you tend to devote yourself to one thing and get stuck in?).

Economic trends affect demand

According to the 2012 Salary Guide from recruitment company Hudson, there are marked trends in demand for certain specialisms, some of which are led by wider economic trends. Jemma Rawlins, Hudson’s associate director for HR and the Home Counties, explains: “In the last year to 18 months we saw a lot of restructuring, so there was demand for roles to support that, such as employee relations. But, in the past six months organisations have started to invest in specialist roles such as compensation and benefits and change management. The feeling is clients have stripped out those roles they no longer need, they’ve got a good team in place and they now want to ensure that staff are engaged and getting the right package.”

Hudson’s report also highlights an increase in demand in some areas for heads of recruitment, suggesting that organisations are investing in building this expertise in-house, and the emergence of HR reporting roles, reflecting an increased need to demonstrate that HR programmes are effective. There is also an increase in demand for organisational development (OD) specialists as organisations shape their businesses to deal with future challenges.

HR generalists argue that they enjoy a greater variety than their specialist colleagues, but those who have turned their passion into a career boast incredible job satisfaction. JoAnn Verderese, head of reward and compensation at global pharmaceutical company Shire, says: “You have to make a choice; do you want variety or do you want to specialise? I loved what I did so I decided to specialise. I’d had enough of a taste of generalist HR to know that reward was for me,” she says.

Scott McArthur, director of Sculpture Consulting, lost interest in generalist HR despite moving companies, because the same issues kept cropping up. “I fell into a job which involved a huge transition programme and loved it. I’ve been doing transition and change management work for the past ten years,” he says.

Invaluable experience

Specialising could also mean gaining experience in a niche sector. Handle Recruitment, which recruits HR professionals for clients in the media, entertainment and retail industries, tends to work with candidates who have skills and attitudes that suit this sector: for example being able to react and deliver quickly. That may mean that those with specialist experience of these industries get the juicier roles. “People do tend to hire those with experience of this sector, but it’s easier to move around if you’re at a junior level or you have specialised in something,” explains David Johnston, director of Handle’s HR and office division.

But does having a specialism hamper your career, potentially pigeon-holing you into one skillset or sector? Not necessarily, according to Verderese at Shire. With so much scrutiny into executive compensation at present, her specialist expertise is in high demand. “I feel there are still lots of opportunities to grow, for example as our company moves into different markets,” she says. “The attraction of working in reward is that it allows me to be both analytical and to put myself in others’ shoes when thinking through the implications of reward changes. I can have an impact on people and their lives, and that’s important to me.” She has also been able to expand her role into having a say on the benefits the company offers.

Larger organisations tend to employ specialists, so a route into a specialism might be to gain generalist experience in such an organisation first, before moving into the area that interests you most. There are geographical considerations too: larger companies tend to have headquarters in London and the South East, although the Hudson salary report notes “an evolution of traditional HR roles into more specialised functions” in the Midlands and the North.

Salary and demand

So, what can you expect in terms of salary and demand for roles? Below is a summary of some of the findings of Hudson’s salary survey by sector (based on salaries in London, where many specialists tend to be located):



  • Banking and finance: Compensation and benefits is the best paid specialism, with directors in this discipline attracting average salaries of £130,000 per annum. Average salaries for junior officers or advisers in this area are £35,000.
  • Energy and utilities: OD and change management roles attract high salaries, with consultants earning an average of £65,000 per annum and directors £100,000.
  • Media and technology: Generalist roles offer some of the most attractive salaries in this sector, although compensation and benefits and recruitment can also attract salaries of up to £130,000 per annum at the most senior level.
  • Not-for-profit/charity: HR salaries overall tend to be slightly lower than other sectors, but employee relations and reward offer attractive salaries. A head of employee relations could earn as much as £100,000.
  • Professional services: High salaries for compensation and benefits and OD roles at senior levels. HR reporting roles are also attractive, with managers earning as much as £75,000 and directors a maximum of £110,000.

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