HR graduates: making your first career steps

Personnel Today interviewed five students from the University of Greenwich about to graduate with HR degrees about their ambitions, fears and hopes for starting a career in HR in the middle of a downturn.

We also asked recruiters and HR professionals – most of whom are only a few years into their own HR careers – for their top tips for HR graduates. The latter were drawn from Personnel Today’s new reader panel of HR managers. If you are an HR manager and would like to join our advisory board, please email

Why have you chosen to go into HR? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?  

Matthew Bunyan: As a captain of cricket and hockey teams, I’ve learned to deal with difficulties between individuals within a team, and have always been enthusiastic about learning more about how people behave and operate in certain situations. So I believe I already have some skills that a HR professional needs.
  Dan Quinlan: I have always enjoyed interactiDan Quinlanng with people and find topics such as appraisals, recruitment, and disciplinary issues very interesting. I think a career in HR will be varied, there are so many different areas. I believe a strong HR function is essential to help make a business successful. 

What are your friends’ reactions when you tell them you want to work in HR?

Ashley Hazel AustenAshley Hazel Austen: Many of my friends have expressed concern that HR is conducted behind the scenes, taking a back seat to other departments such as marketing. I think they underestimate the backbone HR forms in modern organisations.  
  Quinlan: I get very varied reactions. Some feel it is a good career, while others are not so sure, either because they haven’t much idea of what HR actually is, or they see HR as the ‘bad guys’ who just fire people and issue disciplinary hearings – a very old-fashioned and negative view.
Bunyan: Close friends think this is a great option for me. My older friends see HR as a negative process and are a bit stuck in their ways. As far as they’re concerned, the fewer people going into HR, the better. This does not deter me, as I am passionate about this area and can’t wait to pursue my career.  

Q How easy or difficult do you think it will be to find a job in the current market?

Amit Karwal: I think it will be hard to find a job at the moment. There is great competition for jobs, against people who have more experience, but graduate schemes offer hope for students hoping to get into this field.  
  Quinlan: I already have an HR job with a manufacturer. I nevertheless expect it to be very difficult for graduates to get a permanent job in the current market, but I do believe there are jobs out there. It’s a case of finding them, taking on jobs for the experience, and having some luck in the process. Contacts will play a major role in getting a job, as they did for me.
Austen: I’m not expecting to be able to find a job in the current market very easily, and am prepared to be flexible and adaptable.  
   Charley SteeleCharley Steele: There appear to be plenty of jobs available in HR, but the competition is likely to be fierce. Many employers have fewer resources and are likely to be looking for people with experience.
Bunyan: With the economic climate as it is, graduate jobs will be increasingly difficult to find. However, I have recently seen civil service HR jobs advertised with a £22,000 starting salary, so I’m optimistic. I’m aware the current market might not give me my ideal job, and would not turn down a job outside HR that could give me experience and help me to develop other skills.  

What sort of role do you hope to start out in, and what do you hope to do later in your career? Where do you see yourself in one year’s time?

  Steele: I hope to start either on a graduate HR scheme or as an assistant in an HR department. I would hope to eventually take on more responsibility with a view to a future managerial role.
Bunyan: I’m not sure where I want to start out, but see myself hopefully CIPD-qualified and working within an organisation in a year’s time. I would like to work up to management level in either a small business or large organisation. I know this is optimistic, but I feel with the right training and development structure I could reach this goal in five to 10 years.  
  Quinlan: I have already had a couple of months’ graduate recruitment work experience at engineering firm Ove Arup, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the moment I work in all sorts of areas of HR, which I’m pleased about as I feel it gives me the best chance to learn about the broader function, not just one specific area, something which I hope will significantly help me in future.

Later in my career I hope to specialise in one area of HR. At the moment I feel this will be recruitment, but I am flexible as it depends on the economy and the jobs market. In a year I see myself hopefully still working where I am and learning about all areas of HR, gaining the necessary experience and knowledge to take me forward.

Would you be prepared to do something else until the jobs market picks up again? Are you prepared to be more flexible?

Karwal: I am prepared to do something else until the market picks up again. I’m willing to experience new things and learn the skills that could help me in future.  
  Steele: I would be prepared to do a different job until the market picks ups, preferably one in which I would learn skills transferable to an HR role.
Austen: I think graduates will find it necessary, if frustrating, to be more flexible in the current jobs market. For example, being prepared to accept temporary work contracts, and willing to gain experience wherever possible.  
  Quinlan: Absolutely. When my current contract expires, I would be prepared to take on any sort of role, perhaps as an administrator, or in a different area of business such as marketing. As long as I can keep learning and gaining experience doing different jobs then I don’t mind at all. In this market, I feel it is essential to be flexible.

What have your tutors been telling you about job prospects? How much support do you have?

  Steele: We have been told that advice is available and that we should be as open-minded as possible in our search for work, including giving consideration to an unpaid work placement which would help us to gain experience in the field and improve our CVs.
Bunyan: Tutors have been encouraging and optimistic about job opportunities. The university careers department has also given me advice and helped focus my mind on what sector and area I want to go into. I just wish their optimism could influence the market and make more jobs more available!  

Q What are your perceptions of how HR is valued within organisations?

Austen: I think organisations have realised that HR has become of more core strategic importance, in terms of innovation and competitiveness, and are more aware of the added value HR can bring.  
  Quinlan: I feel it is becoming more valued, although still not valued enough in my opinion. I feel some companies view HR as either a nuisance or as a function that is there simply because it has to be there. But it is up to HR to change these perceptions and show how much it can add value, especially in these tough economic times.
Bunyan: I think HR is an under-rated part of business. For generations, people have seen HR as either not needed, or as a destructive source of conflict. I believe HR is becoming more integrated into business operations and is starting to be seen in a different light. Hopefully this will continue and more opinions will change.  

Q What do you think are the hot topics in HR at the moment?

  Steele: Adapting to the turbulent economic climate in relation to recruiting and retaining staff, and assessing the potential impact of new leadership after next year’s general election. The impact of recent legislation and its constraints on the workforce is also an important consideration, as is understanding the implications of managing different generations of employees and maximising their talent.
Quinlan: Training and development. It’s an area where some companies may be cutting budgets, but it’s more important now than ever. The recession will end at some point, and those companies that have been able to train and retain the best will stand a greater chance of being successful in the future. Other than this, I see redundancies, short-time working and retaining staff as key issues.  

What are your views on how useful the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is to graduates and those starting out in HR?

Austen: The CIPD is part of the process of adding value to yourself and your CV. Making the move to middle management requires a CIPD qualification – it has become the standard across the sector and to prospective employers. It reflects theoretical and practical knowledge, transferable skills and commitment to a HR career.  
  Bunyan: I see becoming CIPD-qualified as an essential tool to gaining access to more job opportunities.
Quinlan: I feel the CIPD could and should do more for graduates and those starting out in HR. I understand the need to become CIPD-qualified as soon as I can, and it’s something I am definitely aiming for. However, I find it very frustrating that you need experience before you can become CIPD-qualified, while paradoxically a lot of jobs require you to already be CIPD-qualified. Some friends who are studying HR at a different university have not even heard of the CIPD, something which badly needs to be corrected.  


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