Knowing how, when, and whether or not to develop a specialist skill in HR can be a pivotal part in career success. Get it right, and you could become an in-demand expert with salary uplift to match. But make the wrong choice, or move at the wrong time, and you could find yourself in a career dead-end.
Demand and supply of relevant opportunities are key considerations for anyone deciding whether to take the generalist or specialist route in developing their career.
Remaining a generalist gives access to bigger marketplace of jobs, but theres is competition with a greater number of candidates. Conversely, there are less specialist roles, but fewer candidates who are equipped to pursue them.
Key specialisms are: employment law; employee relations; learning and development; organisational design; talent management; recruitment (both graduate and lateral hires); management information; and reward (also referred to as compensation and benefits).
The chance to specialise, or to acquire specialist knowledge which could be deployed at a later date, often arises during study (in the electives of both the postgraduate diploma and masters in human resource management or in CIPD qualifications) or after a few years as a generalist, when it is “safe” to opt for a sideways move or to take on a project in order to explore areas of interest because the applicant has notched up experience and achievements. There are exceptions to this pattern, such as solicitors moving into employment law roles, or agency recruiters taking in-house positions, but these are relatively rare.
Concentrating on a specialism need not be a permanent move, and it is quite acceptable to return to a generalist role after a few years. Geographical location can also play its part in such career choices – it may be difficult to pursue a specialist area away from the head office, and as many head offices are still based in Southern England, the chances of developing a long-term career as a Northern-based organisational design expert, for example, could be limited.
In addition, some specialist posts are not intended to be permanent options. It has become common for roles with an organisational consultancy or redesign remit to be six-month interim contracts.
Generalist and specialist: mutually exclusive?
HR professionals can be parachuted in and out of specialist roles but this does not mean that the specialism can be seen in isolation from the rest of the discipline. Here, the benefits of an early career as a generalist come into play because they allow the HR professional to gain an overview of a business cycle, and to understand the context of the specialism.
“A good specialist can speak both generalist and specialist language,” says recruitment expert Matt Brooks.
Brooks places reward specialists. He sees reward as one of the most defined specialisms within HR, and one which can offer a long-term career ladder, from reward analyst, consultant, manager, or head of reward to, potentially, regional head. This does not make it unnecessarily restrictive. Brooks has seen a career in reward open up opportunities for candidates to go into, and stay at, high-level generalist roles such as HR directorships.
It has long been an in-demand role and has a salary to match. “Reward is usually paid at a 10% premium,” says Brooks, pointing out that this sum reflects the importance of the skill. No matter what the state of the economy, employers have to develop competitive and effective pay and benefits packages.
The key question for would-be specialists in any discipline is how to flag up their skills and expertise to peers, seniors and recruiters. Specialist qualifications can be one means of doing this (see box below) although they are not available in every subject area.
It is just as crucial that specialists demonstrate the business benefit of what they do.
“For example, learning and development specialists have to show how they achieved a return on investment,” says Chance Newcombe-Bailey, manager of HR recruitment at the Morgan McKinley consultancy. “Specialists are no different from other HR professionals who have to demonstrate commerciality.”
Suggested learning for specialists
The courses and seminars suggested here are usually seen as a supplement to, but not replacement for, being a chartered member or chartered fellow of the CIPD.
Reward: The global remuneration professional certification from the WorldatWork Society of Certified Professionals. The CIPD’s advanced level qualification in reward management.
Learning and Development: Qualifications in coaching, neuro-linguistic programming and psychometrics can be useful. The CIPD offers a certificate in learning and development practice.
Management Information Specialist: IT qualifications; project management qualifications.
Organisational Design: CIPD certificate available.
Employment Law: Legal background or exposure to legal courses and seminars. CIPD intermediate and advanced qualifications in employment law.
Recruitment: Networking and expertise from the Recruitment Society or Association of Graduate Recruiters can be useful. The CIPD also offers advanced level awards in resourcing talent and talent management.