It used to be that having a well-rounded job application highlighting a wide range of experiences and a college degree was more than enough to get your foot in the door pretty much anywhere. However, this golden era of the white collar generalist has passed as many of the world’s top economies, the United States included, have moved towards highly specialized and skill-intensive service-based economies. The U.S. has been shifting towards high-end services since the 1970’s, and that trend is projected to continue at breakneck pace. Of the jobs created in the next decade, an overwhelming majority (96 percent) will be in the service industry.
This shift to high-skill service jobs also brings with it a new demand for high-skill specialized workers. That means that being somewhat good at many things, as opposed to being the best at a few things, simply won’t cut it in today’s competitive job market. Having a 4-year degree, with the exception of some highly technical and specialized degree programs, is no guarantee of employment either. College isn’t career training, a fact many employers often complain about. In fact, many firms looking to hire simply cannot find candidates with the right skill sets for key positions, reflecting a jarring mismatch between the well-rounded generalist built into most college degrees and the more specialized needs of employers.
So, what then is the key to finding an HR job today?[sws_pullquote_left] Don’t be a generalist. Or more specifically, don’t be afraid to become a top-notch expert at certain aspects of the job in question. [/sws_pullquote_left]
Don’t be a generalist. Or more specifically, don’t be afraid to become a top-notch expert at certain aspects of the job in question.
When it comes to finding employment in the HR field, the same rules apply. Human resources (HR) jobs may literally involve any aspect of an employer’s workforce – including recruitment, hiring, training, employee benefits, compensation, and even terminations. In the past, this would have been an ideal occupation for the well-rounded generalist. In fact, human resources used to be the epitome of generalism. Most people could get into HR on purpose, or simply “fall into” it as a kind of catch-all career path for business-minded individuals.
Traditionally, HR consists of five areas in the following disciplines: employee relations, recruitment and staffing, strategic management, training and development, and compensation and benefits. A professional with knowledge or training in all five areas is often referred to as an HR generalist.
Today however, jobs in the HR sector have become increasingly technical. Low-level HR managers and other staffers engaged in frontline hiring are looking for people with very specific qualifications, and who really understand the nuts and bolts of a particular role, says a senior vice president of knowledge development at the industry’s largest professional association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). They want people who can do the work immediately, and do it well with minimal training.
Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that those seeking HR jobs become their own HR advocates in the process. They should know the exact duties they will be asked to perform. They should also be keenly aware of their own personal branding and marketability, and the fact that brand differentiation occurs through specialization. For example, all successful brands are often known for a particular aspect in which they are the expert. Toyota is an expert at reliability. BMW is an expert at producing meticulously crafted driving machines. Volvo is an expert in vehicular safety. In the same way the best way to differentiate in a competitive job market is to be known for something.
3 Ways to Specialize in HR Without Actual HR Job Experience
Differentiation and specialization is key. However, for recent graduates looking to break into the HR industry, it’s hard to specialize, or even know what facets of the industry to delve into, without actual job experience. This can be a frustrating “catch twenty-two” that many new HR professionals are all too familiar with. If you are just starting out, you will need an internship to be even considered for an entry-level position. Many positions require a minimum of two years of HR experience.
1. Volunteer in an HR Capacity
One of the best ways to gain HR experience is to volunteer with a community organization or a nonprofit in an HR related capacity. This can add a valuable HR job title to your resume and build credibility. Better yet, if the organization needs volunteers in a more specialized HR capacity, such as in training or tax auditing, it can be a great opportunity to branch into those respective roles. For example, getting involved in a legal aid society could be a good way to gain experience in employment law. Delivering training sessions or conducting mock interviews for an organization is another good way to get some hands on experience. Figure out what aspect of the HR field that you wish to pursue and take advantage of any opportunity, even unconventional ones, to develop a set of skills geared towards that industry niche.
2. Get Certified
Getting certified in one of the field’s increasingly specialized areas can be a good way to demonstrate expertise in lieu of actual work experience. For junior job seekers, having the appropriate certifications can be an important edge at the entry-level where solid track records are unlikely. Many executives indicate that certifications are relevant for a wide range of positions, especially technical ones. For example, most hiring managers prefer a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) for rewards positions. Yet, many companies are increasingly requiring certification for generalist positions as well.
3. Get Involved With a Professional Organization
For HR professionals, that means joining the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). SHRM offers opportunities for professional development, knowledge resources, conferences, and more importantly, networking opportunities through local chapters. Attending conferences, training sessions, and information panels on specialized sectors of the HR industry is a good way to build up expertise and meet others in that niche.
Many professionals hesitate to really define themselves and their talents because it could limit where they can go. But in today’s tough job market, differentiation is the only surefire strategy for getting that first gig. Those successful job seekers who are finding employment in their desired fields have clear definition and enough confidence in their abilities and talents to risk specialization. By focusing on marketing very specific skill sets, top players trust that there will be adequate opportunities as they progress up the ladder. Remember, companies are looking, even demanding, the perfect fit when it comes to hiring. Specialists rather than generalists typically offer a perfect fit.