Rob McLuhan looks at how to get that first job in HR.
A period of low unemployment is an excellent time for young people to be
starting their work career. But those choosing the more popular professions can
still struggle to get established. This applies particularly to HR, which
appeals to increasing numbers of graduates hoping to connect with the human
face of organisations.
There are plenty of jobs to be had, but not enough to satisfy the burgeoning
demand. With so many candidates, employers can cherry-pick the best, which
means disappointment for the unlucky ones who find themselves banging on a door
that seems to be permanently locked.
High on the list of requirements for entry is a CIPD qualification, whether
gained as an accredited degree module or as a post-graduate course. But even
more important for many employers is relevant work experience. Graduates who
lack one or the other often find themselves filtered out in favour of those
that have both.
For instance, Sue Watt-Pringle, now group HR coordinator at Portico Housing
Group, says she finds it frustrating that so many advertised jobs will consider
only CIPD-qualified graduates. As a non-UK national, her Masters-level HR
degree qualifications are not taken into account, despite that fact that she
has already been able to put them to use. "As I am not CIPD qualified I
cannot progress beyond the starting point," she says.
But without work experience the qualification is often insufficient to sway
employers, as many candidates have been finding out. David Bryden completed an
honours degree in business studies in 1996 and followed this up with a
postgraduate diploma at Edinburgh’s Napier University, graduating in 1999. This
qualification entitled him to CIPD membership.
However, since then he has been unable to find an HR job. "When I
started applying it turned into a never-ending cycle where employers asked for
three to five years’ work experience," he says. "There didn’t even
seem to be any opportunities for new entrants to be trained up." Others in
his class also had problems finding work, including some who had already had
jobs with potential relevance to HR.
Bryden says he would like to see the CIPD encourage employers to be more
welcoming to newcomers to the profession. "It is always harking on about
continual development and training people with the skills to do the job, but
what’s the point if companies only advertise jobs for people with
There may, of course, be additional reasons why certain individuals are
having difficulty gaining a foothold. Despite Bryden’s obvious determination to
get into HR, his attempts to find work in his native Scotland means he is
fishing in a smaller pool than graduates in the south. But competition is still
fierce even where opportunities are, in theory, more plentiful.
Recruitment agencies say they find relatively few vacancies in HR, because
it is easy for employers to recruit directly, either from the CVs they receive
or from the local university.
"When we get an HR job it is fantastic for us because we know we will
place it straight away," says Stephen Boardman, director of the Graduate
Recruitment Service. "In most cases a vacancy posted on the Monsterboard
in the morning will have received several good quality responses by the next day
or even that evening." He always expects a large proportion of the
graduates coming up to his stall at recruitment fairs to ask about HR jobs.
But why should HR particularly be so popular with graduates? Boardman’s view,
confirmed by other observers, is that the profession is seen pre-eminently as
one that offers the chance to "work with people". That appeals to
arts and humanities students who don’t have commercial ambitions and who are
therefore uninterested in other potential choices such as marketing, sales or
Yet the "people" aspect can often be a misconception, he points
out, because ironically HR, particularly at junior level, often involves roles
such as administration clerk that are relatively isolated.
"HR has a reputation for attracting people from a wide range of
subjects, but many candidates don’t really understand what it is," he
says. "It has a dry side: you might be attracted by the idea of using your
skills with recruitment and development, or handling grievance and disciplinary
cases, but a lot of it is really administration." Boardman thinks it is up
to universities to make that clear.
The potential for disillusionment is confirmed by Carl Gilleard, chief
executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. He remembers as a new HR
recruit years ago expecting to be involved in interesting selection activities
from day one. That was perhaps a little naive, he now thinks. During his first
year he was tasked with creating a statistical analysis of turnover and
establishing a personnel record – back-office activities that brought him
little contact with other people.
But 30 years ago it was easier than today, he says. "You were more
patient and prepared to take time over learning the basics. This world is much
more fast moving now, expectations are higher and so frustration sets in more
Gilleard also thinks there has been a change in HR which has not yet
filtered through to undergraduate perceptions. From having been
"people-centred", the profession has taken on a stronger business
orientation, in which individuals are seen as clients and customers rather than
Just as inaccurate perceptions on the part of candidates may be swelling the
supply, structural changes to the profession itself may be responsible for a
dwindling demand from employers. Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey
Park, thinks that the shortage of graduate HR jobs may be the result of
organisational change. The tendency of companies to outsource HR functions or
to use shared services has meant a severely downgraded role for remaining
senior staff, she argues.
"I work with a number of companies in mature industries that have all
gone the shared services way, and the senior HR players don’t really know how
to create a strategic role for themselves," she says. "The last thing
they want is an intake of graduates hanging around making life more
Holbeche also points out that some companies are becoming more choosy in
their appointments. She cites Standard Life as one which is aiming for high HR
standards by employing only graduates of a very high calibre. "It is very
clear about the roles and skills it requires – individuals who are commercially
astute and able to build up specialisms very quickly. So it takes the pick of
A dissenting voice about the oversupply of graduates comes from the CIPD.
Angela Baron, adviser for employee resourcing, who acknowledges the popularity
of HR, but doubts that the profession is more difficult to break into than
others such as marketing, media or PR.
"There is no reason to suspect that demand and supply are not balanced,
although it varies from year to year," she says. "A useful barometer
is job advertisements, which have been pretty healthy this year, and there are
still quite a few aimed at the graduates end."
However, Baron recognises that a CIPD qualification alone is not a passport
into HR, and she thinks the students most likely to suffer in this regard are
the minority who have taken full-time HR courses and whose expectations may
have been raised to unrealistic levels.
Perhaps the first step for students wanting a career in HR is to wise up to
what employers actually want. James Davidson, head of Bath University’s career
advisory service, acknowledges the lack of understanding among undergraduates
as one of the main hurdles. "If someone here comes to us with an
unrealistic idea of what the job involves we would make them more aware of what
it encompasses," he says.
The need for a CIPD qualification is easy to grasp but graduates can be
daunted by employers’ insistence on experience, and don’t always know how to
get it. Davidson advises students that HR doesn’t have to be their first job
and that there will be other opportunities to get in, perhaps through an
The AGR’s Gilleard agrees. "I do recognise that people are quite
desperate to get that first position," he says. "It is the classic
Catch-22 problem, that employees want experiences but won’t give them the jobs
in the first place."
However, all kinds of jobs can potentially provide the kind of insights that
could convince employers, he points out – a temporary admin job in an HR
department could provide ideal networking opportunities, for example, and act
as a springboard to something more substantial. Even casual work can be
relevant. "If you are just stacking shelves in a supermarket you are
working in a team, dealing with customers, and developing skills that give you
an idea about the world of work," he says.
However Peter Sell, director of HR consultancy DMS, warns graduates seeking
to impress employers with a job directly relevant to HR to be discriminating.
"One idea they often have is to get a job in a recruitment agency to use
as a jumping off point. But HR departments perceive this kind of work just as
CV pushing so it may not necessarily be useful," he says.
University students need to focus on the longer-term objectives of paid work
that, in many cases, they will have taken on primarily to support themselves.
"When you do get a job, it is important to treat it as a learning as well
as an earning experience," says David Thomas, chief executive of Careers
Research and Advisory Centre, an education charity. "It is amazing how
much people can learn about HR issues such as workplace practices and teamwork
with a few simple tools."
CRAC runs a programme for third-year undergraduates to help their transition
to the world of work. This includes learning soft skills which Thomas believes
are relevant to HR, enabling participants to articulate issues they have
In partnership with the National Union of Students the organisation is also
developing a free two-day orientation course for year-two students, showing
them how to turn paid work into a learning experience with a career focus. The
project will soon start with a pilot of 600 places in 12 universities, followed
next year by a nationwide roll-out sponsored by employers.
As many professionals know from their own experience, getting a foothold in
the occupation of their choice was not actually the insurmountable task it may
have seemed to be at the time. In retrospect, the apparently unreasonable
demands of some firms simply weeded out those who lacked the determination to
find their own routes.
"Because it is so competitive, applicants have to know why they want to
get into HR," says Boardman of the Graduate Recruitment Service.
"Above all, leave no stone unturned – try and try again."
10 tips for HR graduates
1 Find out from careers advisers exactly what HR involves
2 Learn about individual employers from company websites
3 Where possible, talk to people who are already in HR to get an insider’s
4 When working part-time at university, choose jobs that will provide
insights into HR, perhaps by working in a team, rather than isolated activities
5 Highlight your work experience on your CV
6 Treat careers fairs as valuable field research for the companies you are
7 Don’t assume that a qualification is the only way in: other jobs can be a springboard
to HR via internal appointments
8 Impress employers with your understanding of strategic HR and show them
how this can advance their business
9 Learn about the issues that increasingly concern organisations, such as
change management, skills shortages and outsourcing
10 Persevere: you have only failed when you give up