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How to Prepare for a Career in Human Resources

Why Human Resources Leaders Need Degrees

By Susan M. Heathfield,
Human Resources leaders need degrees. If you are considering a career in Human Resources, or trying to advance your current career, a Bachelors degree, and even a Masters degree, will assist you to achieve your goals and dreams. Degrees have become more important in most fields, but nowhere has the shift occurred quite as dramatically as in HR. As organizational expectations of the potential contributions of an HR pro have increased, the need for the HR leader to possess both experience and a degree has increased, too. In fact, a degree is becoming essential.

I can’t say that I would never consider a candidate for a role in HR leadership who didn’t have a degree – never say never – but, why would an organization select a candidate who has experience and no degree, over a candidate with experience and a degree? (I am making the assumption that the organization likes both candidates and their cultural fit and experience are equal.)

In my experience in hiring, I have found college degrees, that have emphasized well-rounded understanding of the fundamentals, quite predictive of future success. We can all name an exception. My father’s best friend quit school after seventh grade, founded nursing homes, and is the richest person I know. But, he is an exception.
Hiring Human Resources Leaders, Who Have Earned a Degree, Sends a Powerful Message

A degreed HR leader will generally prove more effective and more sought after than a person without a degree. Here’s why.

The staff members the HR leader will supervise increasingly have degrees. An MBA and a Business degree with a concentration in HR or organization development are becoming more common. So are candidates with degrees in psychology, sociology, and other areas of liberal arts. Degreed staff will look up to an HR leader with degrees.

The staff members whom the HR leader advises will increasingly have degrees. As the HR leader progresses up the organization chart, his or her peers will increasingly have degrees and MBAs. Especially as a company grows and hires more professional staff, degrees become the norm. The HR leader needs to possess the same ticket to be a sought after confidant and advisor. The degree is step one in joining the club.
Especially for salaried positions, degrees plus experience rank highly among the traits, skills, and characteristics identified as needed and desired from people selected to fill most of the leadership positions in organizations.

A college degree and the coursework associated with earning that degree have long been touted as producers of well-rounded knowledgeable candidates who can think and solve problems, and who have proven they can stick with a goal and complete it. Just one college website advertises its graduates:

Among Skidmore College graduates, you'll find young men and women prepared to both think critically, and to apply skills practically and professionally in a variety of settings ... Skidmore's distinctive integration of the traditional liberal arts with preparation for professions, careers, and community leadership equips our students exceptionally well for excellence in today's increasingly complex world.
The HR leader is usually the education and development leader for the organization. The individual who leads in this role should be able to demonstrate the value of education in their own life.

The HR leader generally serves as the initiator of processes that identify and encourage high potential staff. This role includes encouraging employees to attend school to further develop their skills and capacities. Additionally, the HR leader assesses the need for and often delivers training and development sessions to others in the organization. The degree brings credibility to his or her ability to do these activities.

Recognize that this is an opinion, and I am unaware of data that support this opinion, but I generally find that HR people without degrees lack knowledge and experience in organization development, strategic business management, and management development. They lack some of the educational and developmental leadership background and skills of their more educated counterparts. At the same time, they often have deeper knowledge in transactional areas as they generally worked their way up over the years from an early payroll or administration job. Indeed, they usually have in-depth knowledge of employment law and policy and procedure making, too.

In summary, a degree is becoming essential for an HR professional who plans a leadership role in an organization. In fact, I believe that a Masters degree, a JD degree, or even a PhD. will eventually be the degrees of choice for HR leaders. Certification through the Society for Human Resources Management is becoming more common as well. Will you be ready to compete for the best HR jobs and opportunities?

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