Safest places to work in HR

Look abroad for sunnier climes

John Maxted, managing director at recruitment consultancy Digby Morgan, says HR professionals should also consider jobs overseas, with the Middle East and Australia boasting particularly buoyant markets. Gaining overseas experience can make your CV much more attractive when you return to the UK, so this may be the perfect time to seek it out.

Middle East

“Talented HR professionals with experience of working in the Middle East are in particular demand – those who know what a good HR department looks like and who have the ability to lead key executives through change and transformation. Having the ability and patience to overcome the traditional view of HR in the region is the key.

“Culturally diverse, financially astute and well-qualified HR professionals are in demand. Negotiating, persuading and influencing skills are especially important in the Middle East, and some in-demand roles include regional HR managers and directors, organisational development consultants, and talent development specialists.

“Government-backed investment authorities in the Middle East are also expected to be busy recruiting talented HR professionals. A further sector expected to be unaffected by any downturn could well be the health sector, which would include the region’s pharmaceutical and private hospital organisations.”


“The demand for HR talent in the Australian market is varied. There are a number of permanent roles for HR generalists, particularly at salaries below £50,000.

“The roles most in demand would be those in the senior specialist categories, such as in-house recruitment, learning and development, remuneration and benefits, industrial relations and occupational health and safety. There is also increased importance in all matters to do with employee relations.

“Industries performing well right now are utilities, transport, building, construction pharmaceuticals, not-for-profit, federal and some state governments.”

Case study: Going it alone

Fintan O’Toole, former managing director of Securicor Recruitment Services, is one of a growing breed of HR practitioners – those who have decided to go it alone. After just a year as an independent consultant, Surrey-based O’Toole hooked up with consultancy The HR Dept, which offers HR support to small businesses via its network of licensed HR practitioners.

O’Toole says joining a network took the headache out of setting up a new business, by providing everything from the brand to the website. And the camaraderie between licensees is, he says, fantastic. “We all bounce ideas off each other and share best practice. You never have to make decisions on your own, or feel isolated.”

With an increasing number of beleaguered HR professionals getting in touch, The HR Dept has spotted a gap in the market, and is offering a new, cheaper, license package, aimed at those facing redundancy or simply considering a career move.

With every news bulletin adding to the list of companies going to the wall, the idea that any sector is still buoyant and full of exciting jobs seems fanciful. The list of defunct businesses is remarkable, not only for the speed with which it is growing, but for its range: high street staple Woolworths Wedgwood, china supplier to generations of brides even Whittard of Chelsea, purveyor of the nation’s drink of choice during a crisis, looked set to close late last year.

So, for the HR professional ready for a move, what are the options? Where are the ‘safe’ jobs? And is the profession ready for the challenge?

Bucking the recession

First, the good news: the government’s multi-billion pound nuclear decommissioning programme is apparently the answer to all our employment woes. Recruiters Scantec Personnel say the nuclear sector is bucking the recession and offers a multitude of opportunities.

But nuclear industry HR is not for everyone – so, if you have itchy feet and are keen to move, where else should you be looking? Or should you accept that you’ll have to weather the recession before plotting your next HR career move?

The public sector is still seen by many as having the most to offer. So much so that, unusually, according to Angela Newman, associate director at Morgan Law, private sector candidates are willing to consider vacancies there, particularly within central government and the NHS. And applicants who would previously not have considered moving to find a job are now much more willing to relocate.

Newman sees the NHS not only as a source of work in these lean times, but as an area offering fantastic opportunities to the ambitious HR practitioner.

She believes changes to the set-up of primary care trusts mean there is particular scope for candidates with an interest in change management.

But many public sector positions will be short term. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage indeed, many HR professionals have consciously opted for a career as an interim manager, and may relish the challenge around what Newman calls “short, sharp bursts of three months”, most of them around organisational development and change.

No sector is immune

But the public sector cannot be viewed as an HR job panacea. As Elaine Orchard, head of HR at North Wiltshire District Council, points out: “No sector can be immune. The public sector is as much affected by the credit crunch as any other area of work. We can’t raise huge amounts of council tax just to keep extra people in jobs.”

Orchard believes the credit crunch has put public sector HR staff under even greater pressure, with growing financial difficulties meaning that people need more benefits support.

Central government remains busy, says Guy Emmerson, associate director, HR recruitment, at Badenoch & Clark.

“HR vacancies in central government agencies are available, especially within change management, where most projects are still being invested in,” he says. But he echoes Newman’s comments regarding local authorities, which are, he says, “beginning to feel the pinch”.

Remaining buoyant

The energy sector, including utilities and oil, also remains buoyant, with the major oil companies reporting record profits.

And as Emmerson says: “Considering the recent strikes, experience of managing trade unions will be an advantage in this sector too.”

Lisa Wormald, director at recruitment consultant Network HR, says the healthcare market is still relatively strong, as is the education sector.

But she adds those companies that are still thriving are often reluctant to say so. “People don’t want to say they’re doing well, only for the bottom to fall out of their market,” she says.

So if you are considering a move, you will need to do some thorough research – make sure you look beyond the headlines in the business pages.

The recession needn’t mean bad news for HR. Wormald says the single biggest change she and her colleagues have seen is companies that cut their HR headcount when the credit crunch first kicked in are already hiring again, having realised they need HR to help keep remaining staff engaged.

“Companies are now rebuilding their HR functions,” she says. “They are starting to realise that they need people to look after their remaining staff – that’s HR’s job.”

Certain roles are coming to the forefront. “We’ve found there are still a good number of learning and development roles, even though you would think that the training budgets would be the first to go.”

She has also seen an increase in the number of reward roles, again a reflection of companies’ new priorities. And an increasing number of businesses are bringing functions, particularly recruitment, in-house, in a bid to cut costs.

Looking longer term

Regardless of the recession, HR practitioners should be looking at their careers with the longer term in mind. Rather than restricting yourself to the sectors that are currently thriving, focus on your personal career aspirations and where you want to be in five years’ time.

Paul Grafton, associate director at recruitment consultancy BLT, says: “Be honest with yourself about the sector you would like to work in and where your experience and style would fit.

“Look for which companies are currently successful in their sectors and approach them directly or speak to a recruitment consultancy. But don’t just ‘knee-jerk’ into an opportunity if the cultural fit isn’t right, as you’ll soon be looking again when the market picks up.”

Specialist experience

And if you decide to sit tight and ride out the recession, this might be the time to gain some more specialist experience, and move away from being seen as an HR generalist. There are opportunities out there for people who are prepared to take a risk or rethink their career priorities. This recession will end, and the canny HR practitioner will be the one best prepared for a return to economic prosperity.

According to management development centre Roffey Park Institute’s latest management agenda survey, published in January 2009, “the vast majority of managers have not led in a recession, and have no experience of these tough conditions”.

Roffey Park’s principal consultant, HR, Gary Miles says: “The recession is make or break for HR. Senior line managers will be looking to HR to give them high levels of support and guidance. They will need expert help in making tough decisions.”

He adds: “For UK plc to come through the recession and restore levels of growth, there will also need to be a greater focus on innovation and new ways of working. HR could potentially be the architect of that change. It could provide itself with an exciting future.”

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