How to Become a Human Resources Specialist

Human resources specialist talking to employee

Human resources (HR) specialists are the unsung heroes of the corporate world. They are responsible for fueling the growth of a company and helping it achieve its objectives. HR professionals manage this, first, by hiring the best talent for the job, and then by ensuring that employees are properly trained, compensated and motivated. If you’re wondering how to become a human resources specialist, you should first know the finer details of what HR professionals do.

What Is a Human Resources Specialist?

In the broad scheme of things, an HR professional is responsible for working toward the long-term success of a company or other organization by ensuring that it has the talent it needs.

In other words, HR specialists are responsible for recruiting, hiring and retaining qualified staff members who meet their organization’s needs. This might sound straightforward, but the day-to-day life it involves can be quite varied, including any of the following tasks:

  • Writing job ads to solicit applications; reviewing the applications, interviewing candidates and checking candidates’ references
  • Making hiring decisions in alignment with the company’s overall objectives and with all federal, state and local anti-discrimination regulations
  • Helping to onboard new employees and with employee socialization, in part by conducting orientation sessions and introducing employees to benefits packages and options
  • Developing employee policies and procedures for the company
  • Overseeing exit procedures for employees who are resigning or retiring
  • Maintaining employee files

In addition, HR specialists are responsible for administering their companies’ benefits and compensation packages. They must stay up to date with all the latest employment-related regulations and ensure that their organizations are in full compliance. Increasingly, HR professionals are also being called on to meet companies’ professional development and training needs.

Entry-level and senior-level HR professionals’ jobs look quite different. An entry-level HR specialist focuses mainly on the administrative side of the business, whereas a senior professional in the field is more likely to hold a managerial role. Between the entry-level HR specialist and before senior-level HR management, the HR business partner or generalist serves. An HR manager typically oversees an entire HR department and plans its activities.

How to Become a Human Resources Specialist

If what you’ve just read has made you want to become a human resources specialist, it’s time to start thinking about your education. A human resources specialist must have at least a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree is strongly recommended and opens the door to working toward a managerial position, such as that of manager of an HR department or an independent HR agency. 

While you are earning your human resources degree, actively building your professional network and exploring internship opportunities are wise investments of time and energy. Even with a degree, experience can be a critical factor in landing a job in this field. Once you do land your first job, it’s advisable to begin earning some voluntary certifications to enhance your HR skills further.

Do You Need a Human Resources Degree?

Yes, the first step in the process of becoming a human resources specialist is to earn a human resources degree. An HR professional needs at least a bachelor’s degree in a business and management field, such as a Bachelor of Science in Applied Human Resources Management.

This kind of degree provides you with a solid framework of knowledge and skills in areas such as workforce planning, employee relations, organizational behavior and business communications. To enhance your human resources major, you may want to consider declaring a relevant minor to expand the range of skills you bring to your future job.

For example, since you’ll be working with employees from many different backgrounds, it may be helpful to take some foreign language courses. Since HR professionals must also have strong interpersonal skills, a minor in communications or psychology would also be useful.

Although it’s possible to enter the field with just a bachelor’s degree, there are two reasons to consider a master’s. First, if you’re already a working adult with a bachelor’s degree in another subject area, a graduate-level human resources degree can pave the way to a career transition into HR.Second, the HR jobs open to holders of bachelor’s degrees are entry-level. If you aspire to a higher-level position, such as that of human resources manager, you will probably need an advanced degree.

One option is to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in human resources. Employers recognize MBA graduates as having outstanding leadership and communication skills, strong critical thinking abilities and in-depth business knowledge. This degree would serve you well in any industry.

Key Skills and Characteristics for a Human Resources Specialist

While you’re in college taking steps toward becoming a human resources specialist, you can begin cultivating skills and characteristics that will serve you in this field.

The main role of an HR professional is essentially that of a liaison who acts as a go-between for executives and employees. A human resource specialist must strike a delicate balance between doing what is best for the company as a whole and ensuring the satisfaction of each employee. To do this job well, an HR specialist must have the following:

  • Communication skills: Communication is a two-way street. An HR professional must be an excellent listener, paying attention to nonverbal cues as well as actively listening to what people are saying. On the flip side, the ability to convey information clearly and concisely is also essential. In addition, being comfortable speaking to a crowd is a valuable skill since HR managers are sometimes asked to give presentations at workshops and staff development initiatives.
  • Conflict resolution skills: Since HR specialists play a role in resolving disputes between employees and managers, conflict resolution skills are vital. HR professionals need solid mediation and negotiation skills — and a good measure of empathy.
  • Interpersonal skills: HR professionals need to be able to interact well with people from all walks of life and with all kinds of personalities. An ideal HR specialist is personable enough to interact equally well with a C-suite executive and an entry-level employee.
  • Organizational skills: A human resource specialist must keep tabs on a significant volume of information on a daily basis. This makes organizational skills crucial. Close attention to detail is also essential.
  • Decision-making skills: HR professionals make important decisions daily — from determining which job candidate to hire to selecting the components of a benefits package. They must be able to evaluate each option carefully to choose the best one for the company.

In addition, HR professionals are privy to a considerable amount of sensitive information. They must have a strong sense of ethics to help them uphold confidentiality standards and protect employees’ privacy rights.

How Can You Land an Entry-Level Job in HR?

As important as an HR-related degree is for breaking into the field, it’s also crucial to gain relevant experience. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) contends that it’s difficult for job applicants without HR experience to compete for a job, even if they do have an HR-related degree.*

This raises the question of how to acquire experience when experience is necessary to land a job in the first place. The key that unlocks this puzzle is an internship. In the HR field, internships are even more critically important than in many other professions. An internship allows you to learn hands-on skills in a real-world setting and challenges you to develop workable solutions to everyday problems. It's in your best interest to graduate with at least a year of internship experience.

You should begin searching for relevant internship opportunities no later than your junior year in college. Connect with your college’s career resources department to discuss the possibilities in your area. Internships may be available at the in-house HR departments of mid- to large-size corporations. There may also be opportunities at independent HR agencies that provide services to multiple companies.

Networking is also vital to become a human resources specialist. Consider getting involved with a student chapter of the SHRM in your region. The chapter provides opportunities to network with active practitioners. By nature, HR professionals enjoy helping other people succeed, which means that students are likely to find it relatively easy and quite pleasant to network with active professionals.

Is Ongoing Professional Development Important for HR Specialists?

Unlike certain other fields, such as healthcare, the HR field doesn’t strictly require licensing or certification. However, earning one or more voluntary certifications can give you an edge in your quest for your dream job. More than that, advanced skills expand your ability to serve your company and its employees. Further, adding certifications to your career qualifications can make you a competitive candidate for a higher salary and managerial opportunities.

Some certifications require you to have a specific amount of HR-related work experience, while others are designed for professionals who are just beginning their careers. One option to consider is the certifications available through SHRM. Entry-level and mid-level candidates can earn the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) certification, while senior-level candidates can earn the SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) credential.

Other certifying bodies include the Association for Talent Development (which does require some work experience) and the HR Certification Institute (HRCI). The HRCI offers advanced certifications both for experienced professionals and for individuals at the beginning of their careers — no work experience necessary.

It takes time and money to earn a voluntary certification. However, many professionals consider it a worthwhile investment that can substantially elevate their career potential. At the very least, going the extra mile to earn a certification demonstrates to potential employers that you are willing to work hard for your profession.

How to Become a Human Resources Specialist: Interview Tips

It’s the job of HR specialists to interview potential employees, yet they also need to interview successfully for their own roles. Typically, HR applicants are interviewed by the HR manager for the department. As you might expect, it’s important to project confidence and charisma and to communicate clearly. Remember that your internship experiences during college count as work experience. Ahead of your interview, think how you might answer the following questions:

  • Tell me about your work background and how it’s related to this position.
  • Describe an improvement you made that enhanced HR processes.
  • What has been your biggest challenge in HR, and how did you address it?
  • How would you improve employee morale and company culture?
  • Why are you interested in working for this company?

You might also be asked how you first became interested in the HR field, and a not uncommon answer is “I enjoy HR because I’m a ‘people person.’” Be wary of answering in this way, however. Remember that an HR specialist’s primary responsibility is to promote the best interests of the company while serving its employees. As a result, your hiring manager will likely want to hear that you enjoy applying those “people person” gifts to promoting business objectives.

Is There a Demand for Human Resources Specialists?

There is a significant and ongoing need for qualified HR professionals in all sectors and industries. Part of the reason for the field’s strong growth is the changing regulatory environment. Human resources specialists must stay informed about all the latest developments and regulatory changes in healthcare and employment laws. Companies rely on these professionals’ expertise to stay in full compliance.

You can begin the process of becoming a human resources specialist by applying to Grand Canyon University. In addition to our undergraduate human resources degree, we’re pleased to offer the Master of Business Administration with an Emphasis in Strategic Human Resource Management. This MBA program prepares professionals to pursue high-level positions with major corporations, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to begin working toward a brighter future.

*Retrieved from Society for Human Resource Management, How to Get an Entry-Level Job in HR in June 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.