HR specialist or HR generalist?

There are two routes through HR – generalist or specialist. Choosing which route to take can be tough, unless you have a particular interest in a certain specialism. Anyone considering their career options at the moment would be wise to think about what skills are in demand, where the demand is and which option is the most likely to generate ongoing, fulfilling work.

The HR jobs market has contracted recently and is likely to continue to be tight for a while, so careful planning is important. Helen Giles, HR director at the charity Broadway Homelessness and Support, thinks that being a generalist enables people to keep their options open and turn their hand to those opportunities that come up. She also says that good generalists are hard to find: “Getting good HR people in generalist roles is incredibly difficult. There are a lot of people in HR but not many can take up a joined-up approach to business, so excellent generalists are very much in demand.”

Generalists are attractive to a lot of SME employers as they tend to have a more versatile and flexible skill set and can be deployed across different HR disciplines.

Gary Miles, director of open programmes at management institute Roffey Park, agrees that generalists can more easily take advantage of different opportunities. But the skills that he thinks are really sought after, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, are good employee relations skills: “It’s very hard to find good employee relations people. And with the austerity measures hitting now and the Government enforcing public sector cuts, I think there will be more and more emphasis on employee relations, as companies will need strong HR people to deal with disputes.”

As the TUC considers whether or not to take action against some of the proposed cuts, employers will increasingly want to ensure that they have HR professionals with watertight industrial action experience. Nicola Grimshaw, executive director at HR recruiters Digby Morgan, says that a lot of clients are looking for these skills and are not easily finding them. “There are not a lot of people with these skills,” she says. “Those people that do have employee relations and industrial relations skills are able to command some very good day rates.” Because demand is high, supply is low as organisations are loath to let go of people with these essential skills.

Increasingly complex legislation

Part of the problem is the increasingly complex legislation that HR professionals need to know. Allison Multby, HR operations, training and development manager at recruiters The Evergreen Group, says that since the UK has been obliged to comply with European legislation, it has been harder for people and organisations to keep up with what is required: “There is a strong need for employment law specialists to ensure organisations are doing the right things at the right time in the right way.”

The public sector will almost certainly be keeping HR professionals busy over the next couple of years, overseeing a process of downsizing, restructuring and organisational change and ensuring that the legal framework is adhered to. Leadership teams will need a lot of support in keeping the remaining workforce engaged and moving the business forward. But Giles warns that the public sector will be very focused on having staff with good skills. “A lot of HR departments in the public sector have mushroomed with people that aren’t very good,” she says. “They will be shedding those people as they will want leaner departments with top class HR people with strategic vision.”

These will be exciting and challenging – but also uncertain – times for HR professionals in the public sector.

It is not only the public sector that is going through organisational change. Many private sector and voluntary sector organisations have had a bumpy ride during the economic downturn. They too have had to look hard at how their business operates and how to improve their game. Any professionals who know how to manage workforces and establish what skills and people are needed will be valued. And they will have to “do more with fewer people”, as Grimshaw puts it.

This takes HR departments into areas such as workforce planning, talent management and learning and development, so people with these skills will also be in demand. Miles says that the current situation is also driving a need for professionals with strong organisational development skills. The demand is such that Roffey Park has recently developed a number of programmes on organisational development. “In four to five years’ time, they are the people that will make a difference,” says Miles.

What HR needs is people who can act where organisations need to be downsized and then retain, develop and effectively manage those people left behind.

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