Human Resources Careers

Humans, as you may know, are complicated—but breaking into HR doesn't have to be.

Human Resources Careers

Start out on your human resources career path.

Human resources is the department of a company that manages the workers, whether they’re full-time, part-time, temps, or contractors. As such, HR is the core of any business.

What started out as personnel and payroll has evolved into many specialty areas, such as employment and placement; compensation and benefits; recruitment; labor relations; and training and development.

Depending on the company, a human resources job can encompass everything from recruiting to training to compensation, or it can focus on a single human resources specialty. A small organization may have just one human resources generalist or human resources manager. 

What Does Human Resources Do?

For a good definition of human resources, it helps to break down the actual term human resource:

Human: you, the worker—the provider of resources

Resources: your skills, labor, and time—all of which are resources you provide to a company

Humans, as you may know, are complicated. An entire HR department is needed to manage the give and take with your employers in the most efficient and effective way possible, beginning with your job application, throughout your tenure at a company, and all the way until the moment you walk out the door on your last day as a company employee.

It’s also HR’s job to make sure there’s a high level of employee satisfaction. After all, happy employees are more likely to stick around and hit their goals—and that makes a company successful.

The job of an HR department includes:

  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Onboarding
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Employee performance management
  • Training
  • Company culture

If you’re interested in breaking into this industry, you can develop your credentials and stand out as a human resources professional in three primary ways:

1. HR Certificate Programs

Certificates are the easiest credential to achieve and can help you gain practical, tactical knowledge about day-to-day HR issues.

Typically, these one- or two-day events are a great way to learn about new technologies, such as online psychological screenings and corporate education programs. They’re also a good way to explore a potential human resources specialty.

Certificates in state regulations and mandates are valuable because they let employers know you are familiar with important state government requirements.

Most certificate programs are open to anyone; degree and certification programs have stricter admissions requirements.

2. Degrees in Human Resources

Undergraduate and graduate HR degree programs offer deeper learning opportunities, but tend to focus more on theory than practical skills.

Because an understanding of business operations is crucial for those wanting to advance to a human resources management role, experts say an MBA carries the most weight among advanced degree programs.

Although many HR professionals pursue an MBA to gain basic business fundamentals, it's also valuable to know that MBA programs are becoming more geared toward HR pros. Today, many U.S. universities offer graduate programs, including MBAs, that feature concentrations in human resources.

Whereas in the past, HR may have veered more toward master's programs in organizational development, leadership, or HR management, today's MBA programs not only offer traditional curricula about finance and marketing issues but also change management, including how to get things done and the people side of business.

At some institutions, students can major in HR management. At others, HR-related courses such as team building are offered as first-semester requirements or as electives.

The business competencies you’ll acquire with an MBA include

  • financial processes
  • basic economics
  • forecasting
  • marketing
  • statistical analysis
  • labor relations
  • organizational design and development
  • strategic planning to address external factors (such as mergers and acquisitions, globalization and downsizings)

Upwardly mobile HR professionals should consider getting both an HR certificate and MBA degree to round out your hard and soft business skills. An MBA is super-valuable for long-term development and professional credentials. If you want to be a strategic player, you'll have to understand budgets, strategic planning, economic forecasts, and change management.

3. HR Certification

Another educational option is human resources certification because it truly demonstrates mastery of the subject. The two main bodies offer certification: the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI).

HRCI offers eight levels of certification, which are dependent on your years of experience and education:

High school diploma or equivalent:

  • aPHR – associate professional in human resources
  • aPHRi - professional in human resources – international

One to four years of experience:

  • PHR – professional in human resources
  • PHRca – professional in human resources – California (laws, regulations, and practices unique to this state)
  • PHRi - professional in human resources – international

Minimum two years of experience:

  • GPHR – global professional in human resources

Minimum four years of experience:

  • SPHR - senior professional in human resources 
  • SPHRi - senior professional in human resources – international

SHRM offers two levels of certification:

  • SHRM-CP – designed for professionals in operational roles
  • SHRM-SCP – designed for senior-level professionals in strategic roles

Nonprofit educational associations also offer certifications, including the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS). This program was designed by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is administered by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Candidates pursuing this certification must complete five courses and pass the CEBS national examinations. Courses are generally offered through colleges and universities.

For additional human resources training, HR professionals can pursue a specialty certification in compensation, benefits, workforce planning, and other HR-related areas. These are particularly worthwhile if you want to be seen as a specialist in a particular area.

What Type of HR Professional Do You Want to Be?

HR Generalist

If you like to do a little of this and some of that and find that you get bored doing the same thing twice, then the generalist role might be more suited to you.

As a generalist, you are required to wear many different hats. One minute you may find yourself negotiating the employee benefit package for your company, and the next you could be conducting a training program for your line managers.

When you are a generalist, you often start your day doing one thing and wind up doing something totally different. For example, you might start to work on a compensation plan, only to find that you need to stop everything to deal with a line manager's emergency employee relations situation.

Some people find the unpredictability a bit unsettling, because it seems as if you never get to fully complete tasks. Others find it exhilarating.

If your goal is to manage the HR department for a small company, then you might want to go the generalist route, because smaller companies often look for generalists. They tend to outsource to outside consulting firms when they need specialized information.

To help determine if this is the right job for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I enjoy changing gears on a moment's notice?
  • Am I open to learning about areas in which I currently have no expertise?
  • Am I comfortable leaving a project unfinished to handle emergency situations?
  • Do I consider myself fairly flexible?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, then you'd probably be very happy in a generalist role. Consider contacting people in this field to learn what skills you need to get started. Check out this HR generalist sample resume to learn more.

HR Specialists

While small companies can get by with having one HR generalist, bigger corporations, spread HR management duties across several areas, including:

  • employment and placement
  • compensation and benefits
  • recruitment
  • labor relations
  • training and development
  • human resources information systems (HRIS) professionals

When you are a specialist, clients tend to be more open to paying higher fees since they know they do not have the level of expertise that you can offer inside their own organization.

According to Monster data, the median annual salary for human resources specialists is $49,905, with top earners making closer to $70,000.

Below are some in-demand human resources specialist jobs, with median pay data from the Monster Salary Tool and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Compensation and Benefits Managers

What you’d do: These HR workers develop, implement, and administer a company’s rewards and benefits policies, including salaries, bonuses, pensions, life insurance, and sometimes medical insurance packages.

What you’d need: A bachelor’s degree in human resources management is a typical requirement. A master’s degree in management or human resources is helpful, as is at least five years of experience in the field or in a related area.

What you’d make: The median salary for a compensation and benefits manager is $79,026 per year.

Find compensation and benefits manager jobs on Monster.

Training and Development Specialists

What you’d do: These HR specialists conduct and supervise training and development programs for employees. This specialty is splintering into even more specialized human resources jobs, such as organizational development consultant and training and development manager. In general, a training and development specialist will work with training managers and employee supervisors to develop performance improvement measures, conduct orientation sessions, and arrange on-the-job training to help employees maintain and improve their job skills.

What you’d need: A bachelor’s degree, often in business administration or business management, is required. An MBA and more than five years of HR-related experience may also be needed.

What you’d make: The median salary for a training and development specialist is $53,691 per year.

Find training and development specialist jobs on Monster. 

Employment, Recruitment, and Placement Specialists

What you’d do: Also called recruiters, these specialists recruit and place workers. They may travel to job fairs and college campuses to find promising job applicants. They may also screen, interview and test applicants, and may check references and extend job offers.

What you’d need: Bachelor's degrees in psychology or business management are often expected in this field.

What you’d make: The median salary for a recruiter is $52,721 per year.

Find recruiter jobs on Monster.

Human Resources Information System (HRIS) Analysts

What you’d do: Professionals in this area coordinate, communicate, and implement changes to the HR information systems.

What you’d need: A BA or BS degree in information systems or a related field is usually required.

What you’d make: The median salary for a HRIS analyst $68,775 per year.

Find HRIS analyst jobs on Monster.

Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) Managers

What you’d do: Sometimes called employee welfare managers, manager of work and family programs, or work-life managers, these HR professionals oversee programs to enhance employee safety and wellness and improve work-life balance. They may manage occupational safety and health standards and practices, health and physical fitness plans, medical examinations, flextime programs, food service and recreational activities, childcare and elder-care programs, and counseling services.

What you’d need: A bachelor’s degree, and usually a master’s, in human resources management is required, plus at least five years of HR experience.

What you’d make: $122,270 per year

Find employee assistance plan manager jobs on Monster.

Most specialist positions require you to be very detail-oriented. For example, as a compensation and benefits specialist, you need to know the intimate details of the company's benefit plans, whereas HRIS professionals are often involved in product selection, systems customization, implementation, and ongoing administration of the technology and software that helps a company manage its personnel.

You are perceived as the company expert in a specific area, and people rely on you to give them informed answers to their questions. This means knowing things inside and out. 

These jobs require strong technical skills as well as good people skills—a rare combination. Unsurprisingly, specialists are harder to come by than generalists, which can give you an advantage in the talent pool.

Consider the following questions:

  • Am I a detail-oriented person?
  • Do I like to focus my talents and energy on a singular area of expertise?
  • Do I have an aptitude for numbers?
  • Do I have strong communication skills?
  • Are my computer skills strong enough to be successful in this area?

Answering "yes" to these questions may mean you are better suited for a specialist role.

If your goal is to eventually open up your own human resources consulting practice, consider spending a few years in each of the specialties. This will provide you with a solid background in several different facets of HR. You will then be able to sell yourself as a specialist in several different areas of HR.

Ready to bring some humanity to human resources? Do this next

Need help getting your HR career off the ground? Monster can help with that. When you upload your resume for free and make it viewable to recruiters, they'll be able to connect you to the jobs that are the best fit for your skills. You be the human, we'll be your resource.