What is the Human Resources Career Path? The Complete Guide

Gary Anderson
February 17, 2021

Navigating the Human Resources career path can seem a little daunting. It's not like other career paths where everything is laid out in a seemingly straight line.

Many people transition to HR careers later in life. And, even if you go straight from your college graduation to a human resources position, you may find there are more pathways for progression than you initially thought!

Deciding which career moves to make is never easy. But, if you're interested in the HR career path and what it has to offer, we might be able to help.

Below, we've outlined a complete guide to HR careers. We'll cover the basics of human resources. We'll also discuss the different positions you might hold as your career progresses. And, we'll talk about the different types of experience and education that you may want on your resume.

Human Resources: An Overview 

Let's start at the beginning. Human resources careers are all about managing employees. To be successful in HR, you need to be good with people, and you need to be very organized. You also need to stay up to date on the latest employment and wage laws.

HR careers aren't merely about discussing wages or going over company and government regulations, however. Today, HR professionals are often involved in shaping corporate policy.

Type of Work and Work Environment 

A career in HR could lead you to be a senior official in a large corporation. There you may be responsible for strategizing talent procurement and overall retention strategies.

But typically, and especially early on, HR professionals deal with compliance, hiring, and disciplinary actions. As you progress, you'll become the voice of the employees in management meetings. You become the ultimate advocate, and that comes with much responsibility.

HR professionals typically work full time in office settings. And, for the most part, they work regular hours; Monday - Friday, 9 am - 5 pm. That said, some human resource jobs require frequent travel to job fairs and college campuses.

Requirements for HR Success 

Though many see human resources as an "easy" career, it's far from it. There are a lot of big decisions to make and many different personalities to manage. But, perhaps the reputation for simplicity comes less from the job itself and more from the relative ease of moving into an HR career.

Usually, a Bachelor's degree in business administration is enough to make the transition into an entry-level HR position, even if you've spent the last five years in sales or accounting. That's because many corporations look for mature and experienced employees to fill HR roles.

To progress, you can go for a Master's Degree in Human Resources. And, of course, there are certifications you can obtain as well.

HR Jobs Outlook

Luckily, there's not much worry around job security once you've made the switch. Unlike other careers, human resources jobs aren't going to be automated anytime soon. Sure, algorithms can help sort out good potential hires from the not-so-great. But, as we've mentioned, a career in human resources is so much more than hiring talent!

As employment and healthcare laws become increasingly more complicated, the need for knowledgeable HR professionals is only growing. In fact, over the next ten years, human resources jobs are projected to increase by 7%, which is faster than the average for all careers.

HR Career Pathways 

Now that you know a little more about human resources in general, we'll look at specific jobs you might hold on your HR career pathway. But first, let's talk about the difference between HR generalists and HR specialists.

Generalist Vs. Specialist 

Some companies, especially smaller ones, hire HR generalists. An HR generalist will have a comprehensive range of responsibilities, from hiring new employees to ensuring law compliance and everything in between.

You'll typically find HR specialists at larger corporations. They focus on one unique aspect of human resources.

Some focus on recruitment and hiring. Others might focus on risk assessment programs. Or, they might specialize in labor relations. In that role, they would negotiate collective bargaining agreements and work to interpret union contracts.

Whether you generalize or specialize has a lot to do with the size of the company or corporation you work for. At a large corporation, you might become HR manager of Risk Assessment. But at a smaller business, you'll likely be an HR manager. And, your role will include risk assessment along with a variety of other tasks.

Everyone's career path is different, and each company has various titles for their HR positions. So, we aim to give you the most commonly used HR job titles. And we've ordered them to represent a general HR career progression. But know that your specific pathway will likely vary and is dependent on the size of the companies you work for.

HR Assistant

If you have a bachelor's degree in a business-related field, you likely qualify for an HR assistant position. HR assistants help upper-level human resource employees with various tasks like new hire orientations, benefits package preparation, or termination paperwork.

They may also organize company events, send company-wide memos, and help solve workplace issues around wages or absences. But, typically, they do this under the guidance of another human resources manager.

It's an excellent position for learning human resources. And, it's a crucial stepping stone for higher HR positions.

HR Coordinator

You probably know what an HR coordinator is and does, but by a different name. HR coordinators are also called recruiters. They focus on talent recruitment. But they also help with payroll processing and provide administrative support.

As an HR coordinator, you'll hunt for talent, interview potential hires, and help them through the onboarding process. But you'll probably report to someone higher up in human resources as well. And, that person will often delegate paperwork and other potentially menial tasks to you.

So, this is still a stepping-stone position. But it's a great one to have because you get to learn talent recruitment, which may prove invaluable later on in your career.

HR Manager

By the time you reach an HR manager position, you typically have five years of experience in HR and might have a master's degree as well.

HR managers are in charge of compliance. It typically falls on them to ensure the company is following all labor laws.

They also often oversee an HR assistant, HR coordinator, or other HR staff. And, they typically work with other members of a company's management team to set budgets. They may also be involved in long-term company planning.

That makes this position challenging. You need a lot of interpersonal and leadership skills. You also need to be very familiar with employment law.

HR Director

Once you surpass the level of HR manager, you may earn the title of HR Director. Human Resources Director roles vary from company to company.

In some businesses, the HR director simply manages the many HR managers. In other companies, an HR Director may have to deal with many of the same day-to-day tasks an HR Manager and HR coordinator does. They may deal with compliance issues, as well as training, recruitment, and even team-building activities.

That said, usually, director positions come with a higher salary than HR manager positions do. That's because director roles are generally found in larger corporations and will typically require greater responsibility.

Executive Level HR Positions 

Some larger corporations have Vice Presidents of Human Resources. And beyond that, some very big companies offer a Chief Officer of Human Resources (COHR) position.

By the time you get to these levels, your job becomes administrative. You're probably not holding entry-level interviews, planning the company picnic, or dealing with termination paperwork. Instead, at the top levels, HR professionals make strategic company-wide decisions.

They often generate or approve new processes meant to facilitate hiring, retention, or termination. They also oversee all other HR employees. And, they're likely involved in hiring other upper-level management positions.

To get to these upper-levels, you'll likely need over ten years of experience, maybe over fifteen. And, a Master's Degree is a good idea.

Education Requirements 

We've gone through the basics of human resources and talked about different progressions through HR careers. But not everyone has the Bachelor's Degree they need to begin a career in Human Resources.

And, even if you do, you may lack experience. So let's look at different educational options for a career in human resources.

If you're interested in a career in human resources but don't yet have a Bachelor's Degree, the first step is to acquire one. That said, you don't want to get just any Bachelor's Degree.

Preferably, you'll gain a degree in a business-related field of study. This could be economics, business arts, marketing, labor law, or a variety of other business degree options.

While taking your undergrad courses, it's a good idea to look for available elective classes in behavioral and social sciences. Classes in those fields will help you understand people a little better, which is vital for a successful HR career!

While you're in school or directly after, it's also a good idea to seek an internship. HR internships provide on-the-job experience and will make finding an entry-level HR position that much easier later on.

Transitioning to HR from Another Career 

If you already made it through college and have some real career experience under your belt, there's no need to run back to school for another Bachelor's Degree in Business Arts. Lots of people successfully transition into HR from other careers.

That said, more education might be helpful. If your Bachelor's Degree isn't in a business-related field, you might want to consider an MBA program. MBA or Master's of Business Arts degrees are readily available from all sorts of reputable universities. And you can complete many of the curriculums online or via weekend classes in as little as a year.

Once you have either an MBA or a Bachelor's in a business-related field, you can begin looking for entry-level HR jobs, such as an HR assistant position. If possible, leverage the contacts you already have from your prior career.

Companies often look for mature and experienced people to fill their HR roles, even at an entry-level. That's because good conversational skills are vital in HR, and few young professionals have what it takes. So, you may be able to use your former career's contacts to gain an HR role by highlighting your communication prowess.

You can also seek out HR seminars or certification programs. Both will help you to meet other HR professionals who could help land you a job. Listing seminars and certifications on your resume and mentioning them in an interview won't hurt your chances either!

To Sum it Up 

If you're considering a job in human resources, there are many options!

You might find you love being an HR generalist at a smaller company. There you'll have direct contact with all employees. And you'll get to enjoy a variety of tasks from talent recruitment to running risk assessment programs.

Or perhaps you'll journey down the HR specialist track. Maybe you'll even climb the corporate ladder and help create and implement employee programs for giant corporations.

No matter which HR career path you pick, you'll likely have full-time but regular hours. And, you'll probably enjoy a stable office setting. Of course, if you prefer the jet set life, HR has options for that too. Recruiters often travel to job fairs and college campuses regularly.

Regardless of where your HR career takes you, you'll need a Bachelor's degree in a business-related field. And some general work experience might not hurt either. Many companies look for more mature candidates to fill their HR roles. That makes it relatively easy to transition to an HR career path later on in life.

Best of all, HR careers are only forecasted to grow. So transitioning or starting in this field is a good idea! If you're organized, good with people, and know you'll thrive as an employee advocate, HR is an ideal field for you. Hopefully, this guide helped you narrow down a potential HR career path!

Gary Anderson
Vice President of Sales
Gary has been a driving force at Criterion since 2016, bringing over twenty years of experience in HCM, HR & Payroll solutions to our executive team. His team continuously works to anticipate & understand the HCM needs of SMBs, helping us to produce solutions to solve key business issues our customers face.

Related Posts