Over the last week I’ve received more than half a dozen emails from people looking for their first foray back into the HR realm after making a move to a new city, taking time off for childcare/maternity leave, and other similar stories. It’s a challenge, but this is easier than breaking into HR in the first place if you have some sort of track record to point to. Often, those early experiences (whether in HR or outside) can help us by illuminating the activities we don’t want to do just as much as highlighting those thing we do want to do. Today I’m going to offer some practical tips and strategies to help those of you that are on the outside trying to get back into HR.

get a job in HR

The Local HR Group/Chapter

Let’s talk about networking. What? You’ve heard of it? Well, good. It’s a primary component of my advice for those people trying to break into HR. But I realized this week that I have a more radical view of networking than others. And no, not in the “annoy everyone around you all day every day” kind of radical view. I’m talking about the kinds of ideas and opportunities I create around me to find and connect with other smart people. Note: I hate talking about myself, but this is a good story that illustrates the point. If you have a good story, please leave a comment on this post so others can learn from your example as well!

When I was getting into HR back in 2009, I was much more shy than I am today. I didn’t have anything of value to offer the HR community. I was just one of many recent grads with a degree and a job that didn’t fit my long-term goals. So I went to my local SHRM chapter (CIPD for those of you across the pond).

Yes, this is a common step for many people. But what happened next is not.

Instead of going to events and trying to meet people, I decided to make people want to try to talk to me (remember, super shy here). I emailed the webmaster for the local chapter and asked if there was a way to help with the website and other duties. He readily agreed, and I started attending board meetings with a small group of smart, connected individuals in the local community.

Because I was a board member, the others quickly got to know me and my credibility grew. And I started connecting with others in the chapter over time.

About a year after I started volunteering one of the board members had a job opening. It was a stretch opportunity for me, but because she got to know me through my volunteer work, she knew I would be a good fit.

And then I stopped, gave up the whole networking thing, and forgot about it forever.

Heh, not really.

The next year, I decided to do something that nobody had done before in the local chapter. I started an HR book club as a way to connect to like minded individuals, learn some lessons, share some expertise, and read plenty of books.

Through the book club, I forged stronger relationships with some of the people I already knew, and I also extended my reach to others in the chapter that were interested in developing themselves through books. That year-long experience was a lot of fun, and I still talk regularly with one of my friends that I made in the group.

There have been other initiatives within the chapter I have participated in, but those are some of the ones that stick out as particularly innovative.

Find an HR Technology Vendor

This is another option that is completely different from pretty much anything you’ve ever been told, but it’s worth a shot (especially if you’re in or near a large city). HR vendors sell technology to companies, but their primary audience is HR leaders. I think approaching a vendor with an HR degree, certification, or background would make you more valuable than someone just coming off the street with no knowledge of HR, recruiting, and those aspects of the business.

The caveat here is that you’re probably going to have some level of technology savvy to pull it off. I’m not saying you need to be a code jockey, just that you can use technology and find your way around without a lot of fumbling and help.

There are providers across the world that offer these solutions, but if you’re in areas like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, etc. there are probably quite a few companies to pick from. If you want a list of company names to give you a head start, check out my How to Learn HR for Free post.

The Bottom Line

The one thing I want you to take away from this conversation is this: applying online, submitting resumes, etc. should only be 10-20% of your job search efforts, not 80-90% as is the norm. It will require you to get quite uncomfortable in many cases, but it’s also the key to creating the career path that serves you best.

What other questions do you have around the topic? Anyone else have a great story of how you’ve made it happen? 

Update: I published a newer version of this in 2017. You can find it here: 40+ Free HR Training Sources

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Recently on LinkedIn I saw someone asking how to learn HR. Specifically he was trying to learn compensation when he didn’t have a background/foundation in the topic. The people in the comments made some good suggestions, but many of them involved expensive certifications, workshops, and other similar costly avenues. Coming from a background of smaller organizations with limited budgets (and understanding the personal budget of a new HR pro), I know that most of those suggestions are not possible for a significant number of people. Today we’ll look at how to learn HR from the ground up in some of the most practical, and inexpensive, ways possible.

Whether you’re just thinking about getting into HR, you’re just starting out, or you have some experience behind you and you want to grow your skill set, you’re going to walk away from this article with some good ideas on how to do that.

how to learn hr skills

First, Let’s Flash Back to 2009

In 2009 when I started this blog, I was thinking a lot about recent HR grads and the world of HR education. Let’s revisit, because it sets up the rest of this article nicely as far as a true need for HR-related information.

HR education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The colleges and universities are living in a different age. And although some of them are trying to upgrade with technology, they’re still using textbooks as the major instructional material. And who writes those textbooks? Well, I’m sure they’re smart people, but for the most part, they are not involved with the day-to-day business world. For some students in technology-rich fields, their college education may be obsolete by the time they graduate. This scathing comment from a recent study:

“College was a total waste of time and money. Computer courses are bordering on obsolete by graduation. There were not nearly enough computer courses in my degree program. I gained no skills to get me a job.”
— anonymous computer information systems grad

Maybe it’s time for someone to offer something revolutionary in terms of HR education?

Here’s a novel idea. Why don’t we take some measure (not all, mind you) of education from the HR blogs that already exist? There are dozens (hundreds?) of wonderful people pouring their hearts and efforts into maintaining a blog that describes the ins and outs of human resources. What if schools had some sort of HR education curriculum that required—or at the very least suggested—its students study from those actively participating in the field? How revolutionary would that be?

I only found out about the prevalence of the blogosphere when I was nearly finished with college. And that was only through my own personal research on topics that are unrelated to human resources. I stumbled across a few blogs and loved the community-like atmosphere and the availability of information.

I have long believed that to be great in HR you need to go beyond the knowledge that formal education offers. That’s only about 20% of what is necessary to be great in this profession. The other 80% is learned afterward in various ways.

ways to learn human resources

Qualitative Data Comes First

Back when I was a wee lad just thinking about entering the HR profession, I had a mission. This was pre-LinkedIn, so there was no easy way for me to do this. I spent hours scouring websites for local and regional companies and then emailing the HR contacts from the website with a few questions. Unfortunately I don’t have the exact list of questions any more, but here are a few of them:

  • What is the average day like for someone working in human resources?
  • What sort of training or education did you have that prepared you for this job?
  • What is the biggest challenge you regularly face?
  • What’s the best thing about your job?

I received dozens of responses from all of those hours of work. I actually created a few research papers in college based on that information, but more than that, it helped me get a glimpse into the world of HR that my classmates did not. This concept is going to come into play again in just a moment, but I wanted to introduce it here first. The purpose is to gather qualitative data about what to focus on and that will guide future learning. Without it the learning is haphazard and without structure.

As you know I am a firm believer in using books for learning (the latest in the series on that is about making a leadership reading list), but I’m staying away from that medium for purposes of this post because they are not free and because I want to focus on nontraditional ways to learn this information.

How to Learn HR Skills for Free

Remember the example I started this article with of the young man looking to learn more about compensation? Here’s the first half of the response I provided:

Surprised nobody here has mentioned Payscale.com for free research, white papers, etc.

Let’s analyze that, shall we?

First, I mention a vendor website. Payscale sells compensation data and tools to businesses. So why would I recommend them? Because they have a wealth of free resources, white papers, webinars, and other information on their site. I could spend a day just reading and listening to the content there and have the equivalent of a basic college level compensation course work of information in my brain. And it cost me nothing but a little time. As far as how to learn HR, that’s not a bad way to go.

And the fun thing is that this is just one vendor. There are hundreds, and many of the larger ones provide these same free tools to help us. Not sure where to go? Here are a few suggestions just to get you thinking. I spent half an hour researching these for you guys and this is just scratching the surface!

Recruiting

Talent Management

Compensation

Benefits

Training

HR Technology/Various

Now, obviously when these types of companies are sharing these resources their ultimate goal is to use them as marketing to drive you to their products, but you’re certainly not obligated to purchase anything. These resources are free, and you should take advantage of them.

How to Learn HR (And Get Paid To Do It)

I’ve written fairly extensively on getting into HR, breaking into the profession, etc. On the job training still one of the best ways to explore experiential learning, and if  you can lock in a job, you get paid while you’re learning.

More info on those topics:

You might assume that you have to have some of this education in order to get a job in HR, but it’s certainly not the case. Plenty of people move into an HR career without that sort of education or knowledge.

One thing that is worth noting here: your job will not cover all types of things you can learn in HR. That is why it’s important for you to keep up the momentum in the other tactics listed here so your learning does not suffer and you don’t get stuck in that job forever. If you keep learning and growing, you’ll be ready for the next step on the career ladder when it’s time to make that move.

How to Learn HR from Real People

Now, the other half of the response I provided to the request for information is equally important. Here it is:

Try to find some people in your local HR community that “do” compensation and spend an hour or two with each to understand what works for them, what doesn’t, and what they would have liked to know if they had to start over.

This is exactly what I did when I started learning human resources, and it’s still a powerful tactic today. Again, with tools like LinkedIn this makes the whole thing so much easier.

When I hear from people just getting into the field, one of the first things I recommend is for them to find some trusted contacts to start building out their network. Over the years I have been able to connect with hundreds of great HR pros, and some of them have amazing specialties.

For instance, one lady I coached during PHR/SPHR prep last year is a compensation and tax whiz. If I have questions on how to handle taxes for an employee, I could easily pick up the phone or shoot her an email. If I have questions about incentives and motivation, I’ll reach out to Paul.  Heck, if I just need a pick me up I’ll read anything Steve Browne writes.

Get the picture? We don’t have to feel like we are in this thing all alone. We also don’t have to figure out every single piece of it by ourselves without help or support. There are so many great resources and people out there that we can connect with. Figuring out how to learn HR is not just a solo act.

While the web has helped with this and made it more easy to scale up, it has also made some of those connections more shallow. That’s why I also think it’s critical to build a local network of people as well. Within my local area I have a couple dozen HR pros I could call today if I had a question or just wanted to hash out an HR problem I’m dealing with.

That took time, trust, and effort to build, but I started with just one person who took pity on me as an introvert and introduced herself to me at a SHRM chapter workshop all those years ago. I’ll always remember that first interaction. If you’re looking to build out your own network, I’d encourage you to connect with your local chapter. Being a member is helpful, but the best benefits come when you volunteer on the SHRM chapter board and really get involved.

How to Learn HR: Blogs

Read. A. Blog.

Okay, so not all blogs are worth reading. True. However, if you have curated content from someone you trust, that can help to keep the quality high and give you some good, free knowledge. This has been another key part of my learning strategy, especially in those crucial early months when I was just trying to understand how this whole thing worked.

When I talk with college students about HR, I tell them that with a degree specifically in human resources they know about 20% of what they need to be successful. The rest comes from experience, additional learning sources, networking, etc. I always point them to blogs, because those were a major part of my informal education beyond college. I can still remember reading two PHENOMENAL writers, Frank Roche and Chris Ferdinandi, and I can easily trace some of the philosophies I have about how I do HR back to things I read from those two individuals. There are certainly others, but those were the first two I really ran across and latched onto as I was working on understanding HR.

So, how do you find blogs? The HR Carnival is a “traveling” blog collection of some good content in the HR/recruiting space. I recently wrote one themed on Strategic HRM, and I would encourage you to check it out it if you haven’t already.

Otherwise, check out the sites I link to regularly. I don’t link to low quality blogs or sites that I don’t know.

Pro tip: use a tool like Feedly to double your blog reading speed.

If you want to know how to learn human resources management, blogs provide a very easy way to do that.

How to Learn HR: HR Podcasts

Okay, maybe you’re not a huge fan of reading. I have two things to say:

  1. Get over it. You’ll need to use that skill often and it’s better to practice it and do it well than try to avoid it and do it poorly. :-)
  2. There are other options besides just reading.

Over the past few years several great HR podcasts have surfaced and they are free and provide great information that you can listen to at work, at home, in the car, on a run, feeding a baby at 3am… Yeah, something has to keep me awake when I’m feeding the little guy and it might as well be educational, right? :-)

Here are some of the best HR podcasts you can catch. Pro tip: certified HR pros can get recertification credits for listening to HR podcasts!

  • HR Happy Hour – I’ve been a listener of this show from the very first HR Happy Hour episode, and it has been amazing to follow. Steve Boese has really delivered some great information and entertainment for his audience. The topics for the show (employer branding, the future of HR, technology, and work/life balance, for example) are varied, but the friendly, conversational nature makes it easy for anyone to become an addicted listener.
  • Drive Thru HR was designed to be a captivating and easy-to-digest lunch discourse that covers topics relevant to HR professionals. Each 30-minute episode features a guest speaker who shares her or his knowledge and experience in human resources. Our hosts and special guest cover a wealth of topics, including HR Technology, Recruiting, Talent Management, Leadership, Organizational Culture and Strategic HR, every day at 12:00 pm Central Time.
  • Xenium HR for Small Business podcast focuses on HR topics of interest to all HR professionals, whether at a small business or not.
  • Ultimate Software has a selection of podcasts on key topics of interest to HR and payroll professionals, delivered to your desktop on-demand. This series is presented by Ultimate customers and other industry thought leaders on topics that can contribute to company success.
  • CIPD publishes a new podcast on the first Tuesday of every month. Each episode is like a short radio show, focusing on a workplace or people management topic.
  • SuccessFactors doesn’t update their podcast any more, but there are dozens of great episodes of People Performance Radio you can still use to learn more about HR.

How to Learn HR: HR Videos

The other medium to explore is video. I ran across a few YouTube channels that would be worth checking out for some great content to dig into. While you’re not getting 2-3 hour lectures (I’m sure you can find that if you’re really interested!), you are getting information that will help you to learn HR and improve your knowledge.

  • SHRM (link) I haven’t mentioned SHRM anywhere else in this article because much of what they offer is not free and is hidden behind the pay wall. However, the content on their YouTube channel is free high quality.
  • MeetTheBossTV (link) I have followed MeetTheBoss for a while now and really like the executive viewpoints, the high quality video, and the interesting discussions. This is not all HR content, but I found over 30 minutes of HR specific, strategic discussions within a minute or two of searching.
  • Human Resources Magazine (link) while they haven’t updated their channel in a while, I found some great content that would be worth reviewing.

Learning HR doesn’t have to be difficult or painful! Yes, some lessons have to come with experience and a series of trial and error, but you can pick up much of the knowledge you need from these types of resources.

  • What questions do you have about how to learn HR?
  • What is your biggest challenge in this area?
  • What has worked for you?

If you’re trying to find out how to get a job in HR, you’ve come to the right place. It might surprise you, but I’ve only been in HR for about a year and a half at this point. I kicked off my HR career back in April 2009, and I’m amazed to see how much things have changed since then. I now have a great network of people and a little better understanding of this whole “HR thing,” but I didn’t have that when I started. I also didn’t have great tools like the Entry Level HR Jobs Guide.

How to get a job in HR

I graduated from college in May of 2008 with a brand-spanking new degree in human resources management. But I was stuck. See, my employer paid for my last semester of college, so I had to stick with them for a year of (indentured servitude) work to fulfill my obligation to the company. My supervisor knew that I was itching to move into HR, so she reached out to our own HR person in-house to see if I could do anything at all to start preparing myself. The HR person’s response? Nope.

how to get a job in hr

Take the time to learn how to get a job in HR before you make the leap

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So I had to grind out 12 months of work as I waited for the career to end all HR careers to start. :-) In November 2008, I started to get nervous. See, I could start looking for jobs in January, but I was afraid I had lost much of what I’d learned thus far in college. So, like any normal human being, I signed up for the PHR exam. I was slated to take the exam in late January, so I started studying right away.

My exam day came, and I passed with flying colors. I was so excited and just knew that a job would be right around the corner. And then I sat and waited for the next two months, applying for jobs but getting no serious interviews. It was disheartening.

Then in March I applied for this HR assistant job with a local nonprofit organization. To really help me get an edge over the competition, I looked up the HR staff that were in my local SHRM chapter’s email directory and sent them my resume directly. Then, nothing…

A few weeks passed, and I was feeling rough. I’d put a lot into the application process with the only job I was really qualified for, and it was a bust. Then I received a phone call from the VP of HR to come in for an interview. Score!

I was back in the game.

I bet I spent three hours preparing for that interview, and I think I really did well. I was able to turn her every need into an opportunity I could fulfill, and my enthusiasm was a big factor in the process as well. A few days went by and I had to come in for a second interview with another HR staff member, but it was mostly the same questions, so I knocked it out of the park as well.

Finally, a month after my first phone call with the VP of HR, I got the news. After all the prep, I really did learn how to get a job in human resources! It was an amazing feeling to know that I was finally jumping into the field that I had always wanted to be in.

What about you? What have you learned about how to get a job in human resources? What was your job search like when you looked for your first “professional” career? 

How to get a job in HR video

Other posts in the HR Careers series:

entry level human resources

Stand out from the crowd! via differentperspective

After a long and arduous job search, I finally landed my first entry level HR position a while back.  And even after earning a degree in HRM and successfully completing the PHR exam, I was still unprepared for what lay ahead.  However, I have since realized that my high level of preparation beforehand was extremely helpful in getting me up to speed in my new position.  With that in mind, I have determined that there are at least three good ways entry level HR professionals can be more relevant in their new jobs.  Success in HR doesn’t have to be limited to the long-time veterans.  It is possible to overcome some barriers to entry by developing a reputation for being technologically savvy, networking with other HR professionals online, and having enthusiasm for the HR experience.

3 Tips for Entry Level HR Pros

Technology-The Great Equalizer

When I entered the workforce years ago, I realized that I had an edge on many of my coworkers, because I have always been interested in technology.  Tinkering with computers and testing software/hardware led me to have a greater understanding and appreciation for technology, and it also helped me to stand out in the workplace.  In my new position, I have already learned how to use the main HRIS software (Sage Abra, for those interested)  better than all of my coworkers, and I regularly get questions on how to do certain tasks and functions, even though others have used the software for longer than I have.

My advice for entry level HR professionals is to use technology to your advantage.  If you’re unsure of what software you need to be focusing on, or if you don’t have any experience with an HRIS, then focus on the common office software applications like Microsoft Office.  Be the go-to guy (or gal) when it comes to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.  Learn more about HR technology.  It’s the future and all that jazz.

Networking-Learn From the Best

I have met dozens of HR professionals online.  The ones I’ve met online are all superstars (okay, not all).  I’ve been wondering for a few weeks about how I can propose a new program in the workplace.  Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I asked some advice from my HR contacts.  Within an hour, I had great explanations and helpful tips from a handful of extremely helpful and knowledgeable HR professionals.  In the “old days,” that information would have been learned only through trial-and-error or some other equally difficult process, but I was able to avoid some of the mistakes of others (don’t worry, I’m certain there are plenty of mistakes left for me!).

My advice for entry level HR professionals is to get online and get involved with the HR community.  One fantastic lady I met online has been so helpful to me for the past few months.  I told her one day that I would love to repay her, and she replied, “You already have!  I’ve learned more about the upcoming workforce and how they interact just from being with you, and I would not have learned that if we hadn’t connected.”  It’s a give-and-take relationship, and you never know how your interactions will help someone else in the long run.  Invest time in your networking efforts, and it will come back to you multiplied!

Enthusiasm-Let’s Do it!

I’m the new HR guy.  I freely admit that a good bit of what goes on is still over my head, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.  Every single day/hour contains numerous learning opportunities for me.  I get into the details of things, because I want to not only know how things work, but why they work as well.  When someone mentions an idea, I immediately jump into the conversation.  I have a desire to help our employees grow professionally and personally, and since I am new to the HR world, I don’t see the barriers others do.  While it causes me to look silly sometimes when there’s a good explanation, it also provides opportunities when there isn’t one.  For instance, if something is done in the workplace simply because “it’s always been that way,” then I have the potential to change something for the better.  (I’m currently working on a situation like that, and I hope to share about it soon.)

My advice to entry level HR professionals is to take the initiative.  If someone gives you a stack of papers to file, do it quickly, and then see what else there is to do.  While a good part of my time is spent performing administrative tasks that would cause my eyeballs to explode if I did them all day every day, I get them done quickly and move on to more interesting and engaging tasks like creating methods for gathering turnover metrics, performing employee engagement surveys, and developing new ways to compensate employees for a job well done.  Be enthusiastic, and others will notice.  Be lackadaisical, and they will notice.  It’s up to you to make a good impression.

This is my own personal experience, and I would welcome any additional comments.  Would you prefer to work with someone who exhibits these three characteristics?

Entry level HR CourseI have developed a video course to help entry level HR pros find and get their first job and then knock it out of the park. If you are an entry level HR pro or someone looking to get their first HR job, I highly encourage you to check it out!

The course is made up of over an hour of video content, several bonus eBooks, and weekly articles and assignments to help the training “stick” for the long term. These skills will carry you through your entire career; you just need to take the time to learn them!