How to get into HR: a step-by-step career guide

7 mins
Sellick  Partnership

By Sellick Partnership

If you are interested in starting a career in human resource management, it is important to know what kinds of qualifications and experience you will need. By learning more about what employers are looking for, you can maximise your chances of landing a HR job and get your career off on the right foot.

If you are curious about people management, have an affinity for problem-solving and enjoy working in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, a career in human resources (HR) could be a perfect fit for you. However, if you are just starting out in the sector, you may not be aware of what employers are looking for when hiring for an entry-level position.

While there are certainly established pathways for starting a HR career, it is important to note that there are multiple ways into the sector, meaning you may not necessarily require a traditional HR background to succeed in HR jobs. As such, it is often possible to switch career paths into HR using your experience from other sectors.

Here, we will guide you through the steps that can help you kickstart your HR career, from the qualifications you will need to the best methods of gaining valuable experience.

What is the typical pathway for starting a HR career?

Starting a career in human resources can be a rewarding choice for those who have a passion for people and organisational success. By taking on a job in HR, you will have a hand in supporting your employer across multiple different aspects of business management, from recruitment and staff development to overseeing employee relations and legal compliance. 

You can find out more about the main roles and responsibilities associated with HR careers in this guide.

The pathway to finding your first HR role can vary depending on individual circumstances, but there is a typical progression that many HR professionals follow. Here is a more detailed look at the steps involved:

  • Obtain a bachelor's degree - the traditional first step towards a HR career is to obtain a bachelor's degree in HR or a relevant field.
  • Gain relevant work experience - after obtaining a degree, the next step is to gain relevant work experience. This can be achieved through a HR internship, part-time role or an entry-level job in HR. Even roles in other fields that involve people management or administrative duties can provide valuable experience.
  • Pursue further education or certification - while not always necessary, further education or certification can enhance your career prospects. This could involve obtaining a master's degree in HR management or a related field or gaining professional certification from a HR organisation.
  • Progress your career - once you've gained experience and honed your skills, you can progress to more senior HR roles. This could involve specialising in a particular area of HR, such as recruitment or training and development, or moving into HR manager roles or strategic positions. With experience and ongoing professional development, there are many opportunities for advancement in the HR field.

Remember, this is a typical pathway, and is not the only way to get into HR; there are many ways to start and progress a HR career. Some people may enter the field later in their careers, bringing valuable experience from other fields. Others may start in HR roles without a degree, working their way up through experience and on-the-job training. In these cases, the most important attribute to have is a clear passion for HR, and a commitment to helping organisations succeed through effective people management.

What qualifications and educational background will I need?

The qualifications and educational background needed to secure a job in HR can vary depending on the specific role and the employer's requirements. However, there are some common qualifications that are generally beneficial for those pursuing a career in this field:

  • A relevant bachelor's degree - as mentioned above, a bachelor's degree is typically the minimum requirement for many HR roles. While a degree in HR is the most directly relevant, relevant qualifications in related fields can also provide a solid foundation for a HR career; for example, business administration, psychology, sociology or even law. These subjects can help you develop a strong understanding of organisational behaviour, people management and the legal aspects of employment.
  • An optional master's degree - a master's degree in HR management or a related field can enhance your career prospects, especially if you are aiming for senior or strategic HR roles. A master's degree can provide more in-depth knowledge of HR theories and practices and can help you to develop the strategic thinking skills needed for higher-level roles, such as human resources manager.
  • HR certifications - professional certifications can demonstrate your competence in HR and your commitment to ongoing professional development. For example, obtaining a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualification can be an important differentiator, as these are highly respected in the HR field. There are foundation-level certificates available for those starting their HR careers, as well as intermediate-level qualifications for HR practitioners and advanced qualifications for experienced HR professionals.

In addition, it is important to have a solid understanding of employment law, including knowledge of laws relating to discrimination, health and safety, wages and benefits, and employee rights. You should also be able to demonstrate a good knowledge of key business principles, including how decisions are made and how HR can contribute to the organisation's goals.

Because these are general guidelines, the specific qualifications needed can vary from role to role. You should consult the requirements of the types of HR job you are seeking in order to tailor your application accordingly.

What skills are required for HR roles?

HR professionals need a diverse set of strategic people-management skills to effectively oversee the human element of an organisation. These skills can be broadly categorised into hard skills (specific, teachable abilities) and soft skills (interpersonal skills).

Here are some of the key skills that prospective employers will be looking for:

  • Communication - HR professionals interact with individuals at all levels within an organisation, meaning that strong written and verbal communication skills are essential. They need to be able to clearly convey information, listen effectively, and build strong relationships with employees and managers.
  • Interpersonal skills - HR is all about people, so strong interpersonal skills are crucial. This includes the ability to listen, empathise and work effectively in a team. HR professionals also need to be able to handle sensitive situations and maintain confidentiality.
  • Problem-solving - HR professionals often face complex problems, from employee disputes to organisational challenges. Strong problem-solving skills, including the ability to think critically and make sound decisions, are therefore essential.
  • Organisation - HR involves managing multiple tasks and responsibilities, making good organisational skills vital. This includes the ability to prioritise tasks, manage time effectively and maintain accurate records.
  • Analytical skills - modern HR involves increasingly complex data analysis. HR staff need to be able to analyse data on employee turnover, recruitment metrics and more to make informed decisions and recommendations.
  • Adaptability - the HR field is constantly evolving, with new challenges, technologies and changes in employment law. HR professionals need to be adaptable, ready to learn new skills and open to change.
  • Ethical judgement - HR professionals often face ethical dilemmas, from handling confidential information to making decisions that affect employees' lives. They need to have strong ethical judgement and the ability to make fair and ethical decisions.
  • Leadership skills - senior HR professionals need strong leadership skills, including the ability to inspire and motivate a team, make strategic decisions and contribute to the organisation's leadership.

These skills can be developed through education, work experience and ongoing professional development. By doing so, you can enhance your effectiveness as a HR professional and enrich your future career path.

How to get HR work experience

Gaining relevant work experience can often be a crucial step in securing a role in human resource management. It allows you to apply the theoretical knowledge you have gained during your studies, understand the practical aspects of HR, and develop essential skills required when working in the HR department.

Here are some common ways to gain HR work experience:

  • Internships - these provide an excellent opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the HR field. Many organisations offer HR internships, which can provide experience in various aspects of HR, from recruitment to employee relations. Internships can also provide networking opportunities and could potentially lead to a full-time role.
  • Entry-level HR roles - entry-level roles and graduate jobs, such as human resources assistant, can provide valuable experience. These roles often involve administrative tasks and provide a good introduction to HR processes and practices. Working as a HR Assistant or Administrator can also provide opportunities to learn from experienced HR professionals and gain insights into the workings of the HR department.
  • HR apprenticeships - apprenticeships are an excellent way to gain practical HR experience while also obtaining formal qualifications. HR apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with study, allowing you to learn HR practices in a real-world context. They are offered by many organisations and can lead to qualifications such as the CIPD Level 3 Certificate in HR Practice, or the CIPD Level 5 Intermediate Certificate in HR Management. This will provide a solid foundation for your HR career.
  • Volunteering - volunteering can be another way to gain HR experience. Many charities and not-for-profit organisations need help with HR tasks, such as recruiting volunteers or managing training programmes. Volunteering can provide practical experience, help you develop HR skills, and demonstrate your commitment to the HR field.

It is important to remember that gaining HR work experience is not just about ticking a box - it should be seen as an opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge you will need to succeed in the HR field. This makes it vital to seek out opportunities that align with your career goals and make the most of any placements you are able to secure.

How to get into HR without experience

Starting a career in HR without specific prior experience within this sector can seem like a challenge, but there are various pathways that make this an achievable goal. Here are some strategies that can help you get into HR without experience:

  • Leverage your transferable skills - if you have worked in roles that involve people management, administration or customer service, you will have gained many skills that are transferable to HR. These might include communication, problem-solving, organisational skills and more. Highlight these skills on your CV and in interviews, providing examples of how you have used these skills in a work context.
  • Obtain relevant education or certification - While work experience is important, education and certification can also play a key role in breaking into HR. Consider pursuing a degree in HR or a related field or obtaining professional certification from a HR organisation. This can help compensate for a lack of experience and demonstrate your commitment to the HR field.
  • Network - networking can be a powerful tool for breaking into a new field. Attend HR events, join professional associations and connect with HR professionals on LinkedIn. This can help you learn more about the field, stay up-to-date with industry trends and uncover job opportunities.
  • Volunteer - volunteering can be a great way to gain HR experience. Look for volunteer opportunities that involve HR tasks, as this can give you useful foundational experiences that can enrich your CV and future job applications.
  • Start in a related role - if you are struggling to get into HR directly, consider starting in a related role. For example, administrative roles often involve tasks that are similar to those in HR, such as record-keeping and communication. Similarly, customer service roles can help develop people skills that are crucial in HR.
  • Show your passion and commitment - employers value candidates who are passionate about HR and committed to their career development. Show your passion by staying up-to-date with HR trends, participating in HR communities and demonstrating a willingness to learn and grow.

With persistence, dedication and the right approach, you will be able to break into the HR field and build a rewarding career within this fast-moving sector.

Find out more

If you are ready to start your HR career, Sellick Partnership is here to help. As a leading professional services recruitment specialist, we have a wealth of experience in the HR sector and can provide the support and guidance you need to kickstart your HR career.

Visit our HR recruitment hub to browse our latest roles, learn more about our HR recruitment services and read our insights on the HR jobs market. You can also get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can help you.