Help me break into the Human Resources field!
February 24, 2009 5:27 PM   Subscribe

How can a person with no HR experience get a job in Human Resources?

I am an unemployed qualitative sociologist who had to drop out of college before completing my Ph.D after becoming a victim of economic layoffs a few months ago. I already have an MA in sociology and do plan to return to my doctoral program. In the meantime, I need a job. My past 20 years of work experience have been in social services, IT work and qualitative sociology (research). I have been interested in moving into the Human Resources field and have found open positions; unfortunately, every job -even entry-level positions- requires prior HR experience. I am willing to work as an intern while I am on unemployment in order to gain experience, but have yet to find such opportunities (and of course I actually prefer to work, as I need the income). Does anyone have any ideas to help me break into this career?
posted by Piscean to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Most HR people I've noticed tend to be extremely pretty women without more than a bachelor's in psychology or human resources. I have met one who had attended law school and had a law degree. But I get the sense that it's one of those professions where people who don't know what they want tend to fall into. They do tend to hire really pretty young women for HR roles when they do the hiring.

A year ago I would have advised you to become an IT recruiter, but it seems like hiring is down in all sectors. There are people with master's degrees in human resources that aren't finding employment and recruiting agencies seem to be cutting back on their own staff.

I could be wrong, but this has been my observation. Because of the economic climate, it seems more of a "take what you can get" rather than a prime time for breaking into anything.
posted by anniecat at 5:37 PM on February 24, 2009

Also, have you taken a look at the SHRM website? Maybe even coldcalling some HR depts of social service orgs, etc. and saying you want to learn as an unpaid intern might be helpful to them right now.
posted by anniecat at 5:41 PM on February 24, 2009

Most HR people I've noticed tend to be extremely pretty women without more than a bachelor's in psychology or human resources. and They do tend to hire really pretty young women for HR roles when they do the hiring.

Anniecat has obviously never worked for the federal government. Most of our HR people tend to be middle aged men in poorly fitting polyester suits.
posted by fixedgear at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2009

Most HR people I've noticed tend to be extremely pretty women without more than a bachelor's in psychology or human resources.

I've not worked in the US Federal government, and I'll back up anniecat's observations. Also, given the operation of the HR departments at most places I've worked, particularly large places, a cabbage might also be employed, were they pretty and sociable.
posted by pompomtom at 6:19 PM on February 24, 2009

(sorry, entered too quickly) I doubt a lack of experience is a real deal-breaker.
posted by pompomtom at 6:21 PM on February 24, 2009

I worked for an industry association developing content, programs and services for HR managers at small companies in the sector the industry association served. I do not have an HR background.

For example, I created a compensation guide for a variety of positions in the sector. I used a lot of soft skills, and picked up survey design as I went along. It was a successful project.

You may wish to use your considerable research ability to work for a consulting company to create content. Hayes Group, Watson-Wyatt and AARP are a few orgs.

Find out who your local mid-size, privately-owned consultancies are. Industry associations and chambers of commerce are essentially consultancies, too. Maybe they need a contractor for a research project.

There are really three kinds of HR folks: the CEO, COO or CFO who acts as the HR lead for an org. These folks need a lot of help. Then there are HR grunts who post jobs, track expenses, make sure the workers get paid the right amount, and fill out a lot of forms.

Then there are "HR managers", and the shift over the past decade for this role has been towards "talent management." These folks try to influence company culture, build collaborative teams, improve retention, and develop a company's brand as an employer.

You'll probably want to see if you can offer services (or work for one of the HR consultancies that provide services) to the C-level folks or the HR managers, using your research skills.

The HR grunt is a technician's job. You need accreditation on your resume to do this job, but it's not a job I would ever want to do.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:23 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Getting the PHR certification will help your chances greatly of a recruiter looking at your resume and contacting you.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:33 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a non-HR manager who took over the HR department as well, I can offer some insights on getting into HR without any experience, but not by my path.

First, I recommend giving your resume the best HR slant you can and getting in with a few temp agencies. Tell dispatch (or your rep) that you want to do HR work. A lot of HR departments need admin assistance, but you can still put HR on your resume after doing that filing. And if you offer to help the other HR folks with benefits management, immigration, applicant tracking, or whatever the high-volume thing is while you are there, you might just earn a more valuable place, and possibly get hired away.

With reduced hiring everywhere, HR departments are often the last people who can justify hiring more people. But if they know the tricks they can often get temps in for now, with the intention of hiring them later.

Second, get some EEOC training if you can afford it out-of-pocket, and put it on your resume. (If you can't, do get it as soon as your new employer will pay for it.)

If you can get your foot in the door, you can use your background to help. Voluntary attrition (people quitting), although low right now due to the economic downturn, could spike again when things pick back up and people see opportunities in other sectors. Your background in sociology could give you insight into developing or acquiring retention programs.

I second the SHRM website as a resource (good call, anniecat) and the PHR or SPHR certification (Burhanistan), if you can afford the time/money.

Good luck!
posted by thatguyonmf at 9:30 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I work with HR management regularly. As identified above, there's a big difference between the technically trained, accredited people who do difficult, legally required things like disciplinaries, absence management and backend recruitment processes. You normally do need specific experience for this kind of role simply because it requires solid knowledge of a slew of employment law and methodologies.

For the culture change, comms, talent strategies etc, it's basically about applying, sending in CVs and the usual networking for work. Don't apply for entry-level roles requiring specific experience, instead, identify companies you are interested in working for, and look for roles you could send a CV in for (or send one or two speculatively). With 20 years of substantive work experience, I'm sure you've got plenty to offer the change and culture side of BigCompany HR.

Warning however, these aren't the most secure jobs in the world - culture change and so on can be the first thing under the chopping block when it comes time to batten down the hatches (to horribly mix a metaphor).
posted by Happy Dave at 1:49 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most HR people I've noticed tend to be extremely pretty women without more than a bachelor's in psychology or human resources.

Oh please. Such cr*p. There are qualified and unqualified people in every corporate profession that exists. You could take the term "HR people" out of that sentence and substitute "marketing people", "communications people", "salespeople", etc.

I worked in HR for over a decade, Piscean, and I think how you break into HR is going to depend upon what area you wish to work in. There are a number of them:

-Compensation and benefits: Quite a bit of statistical analysis, negotiation skills (with individuals and with insurance companies), research and knowledge of HR law. I found the benefits field to be absolutely fascinating, especially since it required me to be an advocate for employees while balancing a budget of millions of dollars, finding clever solutions to problems, going toe-to-toe with insurance companies, do research on what assumptions that actuaries were using and challenge them, keep absolutely up-to-date on laws and compliance, etc. Very challenging, very specific boundaries of power and control.

-Recruitment and succession planning (sometimes under the broader heading of "talent management"): This was my least favorite area of HR, because I'm not keen on constantly evaluating people. That said, a decent person in this area will be good at assessing the real requirements of a job role and the real capabilities of a candidate, while screening out all of the puffery that goes on in resume inflation. Asking the right questions of managers to help them determine what they really need instead of what they want. Willing to be an advocate for all types of people, especially when a manager is demonstrating prejudices against certain groups. Willing to talk about difficult issues with others that they can possibly take personally. I found it satisfying to hire good people and watch them do well. Less satisfying to continually hire people for 1-2 managers who were terrible managers when I couldn't directly affect getting rid of those managers. In a union shop, you may have to deal with union stewards, etc. But if you keep good records and are fair in your work, this will not be a problem.

-Training and development (also included under "talent management"): This is the spottiest area of HR. When this department is good, it's really good. When it's bad, it's horrible. The best folks in this area are well rounded with organizational psychology, needs analysis, systems thinking, financial and business strategy experience. They will connect everything they do to business strategy, even the soft skills stuff. The will do a needs analysis and be able to defend their solutions with qualitative and quantitative data. They will generally have at least a Masters Degree. Most of their work will take place outside of a classroom. The worst folks in the field are merely trainers who emphasize the classroom, number of people in seats and who hand out little toys with slogans on them.

-Change management: This is sometimes under training and development, which is unfortunate, because it should be separate and related to all of the above areas. This requires deep and broad knowledge of all of the functions of an organization as well as organizational psychology and financial strategy. The best folks in this area have graduate degrees and PhDs and are good at collecting/evaluating qualitative/quantitative data, as well as getting things done through others. This is not a job where you can expect to be welcomed with open arms, it often requires tough decisions. But a good professional will advocate for the best AND most humane solutions.

-HR Administration/HRIS/Compliance: This is the data administration arm of HR, where the numbers are crunched and reports filed with the government. I'm nerdy enough to find it pretty interesting, others may not. Sometimes involves lowering the boom on managers who aren't toeing the line in terms of compliance with FMLA, EEOC, etc. If you want people to love you, not the job for you.

You might be able to score an internship with a company through a program at your school. I teach in a program at Northwestern that is beginning to offer a graduate-level certificate that can be completed long distance with minimal intensive visits on campus. It's rigorous and competitive. But many of our students have backgrounds like yours and want to switch careers into HR or HR-related fields. The program is fantastic at getting students hooked up with Fortune 500 companies in this area as interns.

You could also go on informational interviews with HR professionals in your area. Ask them, "Why did you want to go into HR?", "How did you get into the field?", "What advice would you have for someone like me who is switching careers?" This should get you more information and help you to establish relationships with people who can help you. I did quite a few of these when I was practicing HR.

Best of luck.
posted by jeanmari at 8:00 AM on February 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

PHR cert would be great...but in order to qualify to take the exam, you need a decent amount of HR supervisory that tactic is useless here.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:44 AM on February 25, 2009

PHR cert would be great...but in order to qualify to take the exam, you need a decent amount of HR supervisory that tactic is useless here.

Are you sure. A woman in my company went from receptionist to HR generalist after passing that exam. She just prepped for it in her spare supervisory experience at all.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:47 AM on February 25, 2009

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