The number of potential routes into a career in HR is growing – from starting as an apprentice to a complete career change. Virginia Matthews weighs up the options.
Unlike many other employment sectors, HR has fought shy of becoming a graduate-only profession and remains a broad church for individuals from a variety of backgrounds and career interests.
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Whether you are a school leaver, a degree-holder or a career-switcher in search of bankable professional qualifications, entry routes have multiplied across all levels. So what are the potential routes in to a satisfying career in HR?
Earn as you learn: apprenticeships
If you want to combine work with studying for a nationally-recognised qualification, a Level 2, 3 or 4 Apprenticeship in Business and Administration might be right for you.
With this option, you can choose to take units that are specific to HR, such as dealing with HR records and supporting the recruitment and selection process, while developing a well-rounded understanding of business.
Any supporting role which allows you to work alongside HR or learning and development teams will build your people management knowledge, even if your business card doesn’t bear the initials HR. Likely job titles will include the words “assistant”, “co-ordinator”, “executive”, or “administrator”.
Pros: “For school leavers, apprenticeships can be very beneficial, giving immediate experience of the profession and the opportunity to move up the career ladder,” says Barney Ely, director at Hays Human Resources.
“They can also be valuable for people wishing to transfer from another role into HR, for example from general administration into HR administration.”
Cons: According to Robert Archer, regional director for human resources at Michael Page, make sure you get a broad range of experience as well as supporting the team with administrative tasks. “It’s all too easy to become stuck in back-office admin and clerical tasks rather than move upwards,” he says.
Take it to the next level: Higher Apprenticeships
The CIPD offers a Level 5 Higher Apprenticeship in Human Resource Management for non-graduates looking to develop a new or existing career or make a switch into the profession.
The qualification “provides people with a new route into a rewarding career in business and employers with a new way to attract and retain talent from the widest possible pool of people,” says Sarah Koppen, careers and CPD lead at the CIPD.
On completion, successful apprentices will gain both a professional qualification and associate membership of the CIPD.
BPP’s Higher Apprenticeship course in HR Management, which attracts students from employers such as BT, Unilever, and Transport for London, does not require A-levels as a minimum requirement, but candidates are expected to have either a foundation certificate in HR practice or relevant experience.
Pros: “Although higher apprenticeships are still fairly new on the scene, they are highly regarded by employers for their rigour and breadth and are particularly attractive to career changers or HR professionals looking for a greater degree of knowledge, experience and marketability,” says Ben Lambert, head of business apprenticeships at BPP.
The opportunity to earn a salary while deepening your knowledge and skills in HR management is also attractive, according to Koppen at the CIPD.
Cons: Balancing coursework and working requires individuals to manage their time with military precision, and traditional degrees still have oodles of cachet among many employers.
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Coming soon: trailblazers
Most recently, the CIPD has been involved in the “Apprenticeship Trailblazer” project, working with a group of employers to design a new HR qualification.
Led by Jane Daly, head of global learning and development at M&S, the group includes representatives from 24 organisations including RBS, NHS, Capita, McDonalds, HSBC and the Cabinet Office.
Two new apprenticeship standards for the HR support role at Level 3 and the HR Consultant role at Level 5 have been formally approved and employers will be able to register apprentices for these schemes from September 2016.
Going for graduate roles
If higher education beckons, a CIPD-approved human resources course is offered by a range of institutions. This will give you both student membership of the CIPD and automatic access to career support and membership benefits.
Other options are to follow a joint degree in Business Management and Human Resources, or a single social science degree such as psychology or sociology. The latter could prove useful in a number of HR-related areas, such as employee engagement, working out how employees acquire and share knowledge, and coping with culture change.
Sophie Mills, senior lecturer in human resources at the University of Coventry, which has around 400 students following undergraduate and postgraduate HR-based courses, says: “By doing your first degree in a business arena which is not solely related to HR, you keep your options open for the future.”
Many institutions sit HR within their business schools or alongside disciplines such as marketing or management, adds Mills.
“Young people aren’t exposed to human resources in the way they are to accountancy or law for example, but we make it clear that the people function is of key strategic importance and not a separate add-on,” she adds.
Pros: For those who have decided early on that they wish to focus on HR, a degree is always a valuable route to take,” says Barney Ely.
Cons: Undergraduate fees are around £9,000 per year, and there may be additional costs to consider, such as accommodation during placements or CIPD membership fees.
HR in the mix
If you’re coming to the end of your university studies, you can apply for an HR graduate training scheme or a more general programme which allows you to explore different areas of the business. Retail, healthcare, construction and engineering are among the sectors keen to develop people management skills, and HR is often offered as a “rotation” for graduates getting to know different areas of a business.
Applicants normally require a 2.1 or above – although outstanding personal qualities or experience invariably trump academic qualifications – and the most commonly-requested key competencies are “people skills” and “business acumen”, says the website targetjobs.co.uk. Schemes are usually open to graduates from all degree disciplines.
Pros: If you land a place with a blue-chip company, the learning is likely to be structured and rigorous and “you will be exposed to different parts of the organisation via often-lengthy placements before you are expected to choose a definite career path,” says Robert Archer.
Cons: Not all graduate schemes are equal in terms of pay, rewards and level of responsibility and some graduates have reported dissatisfaction with the mundane nature of their role.
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Taking the CIPD route
The CIPD is the only recognised professional body in the UK which offers approved HR and learning and development qualifications.
Depending on your existing experience and qualifications, you can apply for one of 3 levels; Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced, each of which is delivered in a variety of ways such as part-time, full-time or distance-learning. Employers may be willing to support you financially.
Pros: Barney Ely says “CIPD qualifications gained in work offer the benefits of simultaneous work experience and technical training.”
Cons: Studying while working can be a slog and for some students, reaching each successive level while holding down a demanding job may take time.
Ringing the career changes
“HR is relatively accessible to career changers, as there is a strong people element to the role,” says Ely. “If you have an enthusiasm and aptitude for working with people, it is possible to gain the required technical skills through training and CIPD study, and this can be done more easily than in some professions such as finance, legal or engineering.”
While someone from a finance background may specialise in reward, a candidate with previous experience in a sales background may opt for an internal training role, for example.
Archer adds: “For someone with an interest in people, HR can offer a very satisfying change of focus. While many candidates move into the profession from other areas, the numbers moving the other way are very small, however.”
Archer believes that demand for HR professionals with a range of different skills is high, both among organisations looking to expand and those considering downsizing.
He says there is “great demand” for reward, compensation and benefits specialists in the current job market and quotes a salary range of between £60,000 and £150,000.
“Banks, accountancy firms, management consultancies and top FTSE 150 firms generally are finding it hard to source the experts who can offer guidance on senior salaries and overall packages and this is pushing up their market value,” he said.
The recently published Hays UK Salary & Recruiting Trends 2016 report, which includes survey results from almost 500 HR employers and employees, reveals that reward and benefit, equality and diversity and HR generalist roles saw a 2% average salary increase in the last 12 months.
Large organisations have expanded their HR departments, says the study, and there is now particular demand for resourcing, reward and learning and development roles. Pay pressure is likely to heighten in 2016.
For those still at school, too often HR is overlooked as a career because young people aren’t aware it is a potential option, or know what it involves. But that could be about to change.
The CIPD has sponsored a project aimed at 11 to 24-year-olds called “Plotr’s HR World“, an interactive resource featuring 14 different roles from HR apprentice to HR director, as well as specialist roles across L&D, recruitment, reward and employee relations.
“We do a great deal to promote HR as a career, and our focus has always been on ensuring that people understand the HR of today, not the HR of yesterday,” says Koppen. “We’re encouraging employers to drop the industry jargon and engage far more with young people.”