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When people think of human resources or "HR" they might picture a mysterious hiring and firing department, or the downtrodden HR rep Toby from the NBC comedy "The Office." But don’t be fooled—HR work can make for a great, challenging career.

As the name suggests, HR professionals usually have stellar people skills, but their responsibilities go far beyond reading resumes. They’re crucial to upholding the culture of a workplace, and they play a vital role in an organization’s mission.

What do HR reps do?

In a nutshell, HR is the department that:

  • Handles recruiting, hiring, and training employees;
  • Manages compensation, benefits, and payroll;
  • Provides opportunities for ongoing development; and
  • Communicates organizational values.

As if that weren’t enough, HR professionals keep organizations running smoothly in many other ways, from employee scheduling to conflict resolution. Essentially they manage people—the human resources of a company.

An important part of HR, for instance, is knowing employment law. Nonprofits in the United States need to abide by federal, state, and local regulations just as for-profits do, and organizations are responsible for keeping up with legal changes.

Smaller organizations usually have a single HR representative who wears multiple hats. But larger organizations may have an expanded department with two or more HR reps. Careers within HR include:

  • HR generalist. This is who you’ll find at most smaller nonprofits. The HR generalist does a little bit of everything, from hiring to training and more.
  • HR assistant. This is the first entry-level rung on the ladder. HR assistants may still be getting their degree or otherwise learning the ropes. An assistant might handle employee paperwork, write job descriptions and post available jobs, and take on other administrative duties to keep the office running. 
  • HR specialist. Usually found at larger organizations, these professionals become experts in an area of HR like risk management, employee welfare, career development, or payroll.
  • HR managers. In organizations with multiple HR reps, HR managers oversee the whole operation as department supervisors.

Get the education

Most careers in this field require at least a bachelor’s degree. Some schools offer programs with a human resources focus—usually this will be a degree in business administration or management with an HR specialty. If you know you want to be on an HR management track this might be a good place to start. But if you don’t go this route, other courses of study provide skills you need to succeed on the job.

  • Psychology and sociology train you to understand employees’ diverse needs.
  • Finance preps you for the math-heavy side of HR.
  • Accounting helps you master the payroll part of the job.
  • Business sets you up to understand the workplace.
  • Law gives you insight into the tricky world of labor regulations.
  • Education (elementary, secondary, or post-secondary) is a crash course in patience.

And on-the-job experience doesn’t hurt either. Some professionals transition into an HR career after several years in a related operational role. Restaurant, customer service, or retail work can also boost an HR resume, since you’ve got great experience dealing with people.

Many HR hopefuls enhance their degree with a professional HR certification course. Not only is this a more cost-friendly option than going back to school, it’s an option endorsed by the Society for Human Resources Management and the National Human Resources Association. Getting continuing education specific to human resources signals you’re serious about the job.

Practice the skills

The consummate HR professional needs plenty of soft skills (and a few hard skills, too). Here’s what experts in the field recommend:

  • If you’re employed, get to know other departments in the organization. Find out what your coworkers’ typical days are like and what skills they use. Since HR reps often help set compensation rates, they need to know what expertise is required for each job.
  • Practice flexibility and creativity. There’s no "typical day" in HR, and you’ll need to be a problem-solver for all kinds of problems. 
  • Learn some accounting basics. You don’t have to be a math whiz, but you should have a basic knowledge of accounting if you’ll be handling salary and benefits.
  • Read up on labor and employment laws where you live.
  • Practice peer mediation. Are you the person in the office everyone turns to when they need to vent? Listening and/or offering advice can be great emotional intelligence training. HR professionals are often called in to deal with employee complaints, misconduct, and other sensitive issues.
  • Try out a management role. Any time you supervise or train others, whether it’s in a volunteer or paid capacity, you’re making yourself a better HR candidate.

Employment of HR professionals in the US is on track to grow 5 percent by 2028, according to 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you have the initiative, desire, and patience, and you’re willing to get the experience, this could be the career for you.


Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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