Education vs Experience: what’s the best start for HR?

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Why are young HR graduates struggling to find work in the industry? Are they unprepared, or are HR recruiters still valuing experience over education?

“HR Certificates are relatively new in the industry. It’s part of the move toward profession,” George Brown Centre of Business director Elizabeth Speers said. “Unfortunately HR for many employers is still a new-ish area and they believe they don’t need that expertise, or think a manager for ten years learns everything by osmosis.”

While certificate graduates learn the vital base knowledge about best practice, legal considerations and policy development, some say they have found it challenging to find jobs in an industry still focused on experience.

“Some industries are looking for people who not only have knowledge about HR, but also knowledge or experience in an industry,” Speers said. “It’s sometimes difficult to provide advice in an industry you don’t know about.”

She added that some grads expect to get higher level roles such as supervisory or managerial positions straight out of school, rather than acknowledging that they still need to learn and prove their abilities.

Speers said she often recommended young grads aim to work for a consulting agency or service provider such as Ceridian, Hays or a recruiter because so many HR tasks can be outsourced to similar organizations. It was a good way for them to develop specific skills and specialties.

“Education is also needed for companies and managers to understand the value of HR and the knowledge base,” Speers said. “It’s often the first area to be cut in tight times – training, development etc. That may be a big mistake.”

George Brown graduate Olivia Lima took the accelerated post-graduate certificate after completing her under-graduate degree in psychology and labour relations. Despite her relevant education, good grades and successful co-op internship, it took almost a year for her to find full time work.

“I kept being told I didn’t have enough experience even though I was looking for entry level work,” Lima said. “A lot of the people in my course were older and had work experience in other areas such as teaching, or in HR outside Canada. ”

The only applications Lima ever received feedback or interviews from were those she found through her network so about four months ago she decided to step back from the hefty pace of three jobs and treating job applications as full time work.

“A few years ago there weren’t enough HR professionals so there was a willingness to take on inexperienced employees to train them in the area,” Lima said. “Now because the applicant pool is so big they can be picky and decide they’d rather take someone with experience.”

Lima focused on creating opportunities for work experience in her roles with restaurants, helping under-staffed HR pros by working part-time and developing training and recruiting programs.

While Lima’s lecturers did focus on how to get a job, a lot of the advice was not specific enough to apply in real life.

“They told us ‘Use your network – networking gets 90% of jobs’, but how do you use your network? I know lots of people but how do I use that to find a job? I can’t just walk up to people and ask if they have a job for me,” she said.

Would you hire a new HR grad, or are you looking for life and work experience?

  • Christine on 2013-08-26 7:59:48 AM

    Work experience is extremely important when it comes to an HR related career. Most knowledge is tacit and therefore experience, exposure and education combined all fundamental to getting your foot in the door.

  • Joanne on 2013-08-26 10:14:02 AM

    It would depend on the position. If I want someone to step into the generalist role academic does not cut it and I would look for a minimum of 1 year experience. If possible I would take on a new graduate (which I have done) and train them. Problem is new graduates do not want to come in at the lower rate of pay and feel that with their academic they should be considered ready to take on the generalist role which I do not agree they are ready for.

  • Anna on 2013-08-27 1:47:17 PM

    It's good to hear that experience tends to trump education, but I have been trying to secure a position for about 1-1/2 years without any luck. Most employers seem to turn me down as I don't have my CHRP designation, but have a certificate in HR. It seems to be a da&ned if you do and da&ned if you don't scenario.

  • Diane on 2013-08-27 4:22:48 PM

    New graduates often overlook the benefit of applying to a good employer for an entry level role in any field just to get your foot in the door. Many employers encourage career development for internal employees and when an opening comes up, we have found internal applicants with certifications and education who are currently working in clerking or labourer type roles. If you are a good worker the reference that comes from another leader within the company is a powerful one. This is true for any field of expertise, not just HR.

  • Mila on 2014-05-29 12:34:49 PM

    I am a new graduate and have been applying for numerous entry level positions. I don't waste my time applying for manager or generalist roles because I know you need the experience. Unfortunately most places even for entry level positions are asking for 1-2 years experience and thus the hunt for a job has been hard. I have an internship and will stay there until I find something but some graduates from previous years still have had no luck finding work. Its very frustrating to say the least. I wish more employers took advantage of new grads. We're not useless but keep getting overlooked.

  • Chris on 2014-05-29 2:18:09 PM

    All valid points I'm sure. My personal perspective is that education is what gets you through until you've acquired some experience. Experience alone takes a long time to accumulate before it becomes credible. Therefore, a combination of education and experience is ideal.

    After a brief stint in the Armed Forces, 12 years raising children and several years getting back into the work force, I started my HR career with a University certificate (which I earned as a mature student i.e. no undergrad degree). I was then hired into an HR department as a receptionist, then HR Assistant, then HR Generalist, then Recruitment Specialist, and now Senior Advisor. At each step I demonstrated my maturity, knowledge, common sense, logical analysis, curiosity, willingness to learn, respect for others more experienced than I, skills, understanding of people, and willingness to work, work, work. I'm very content with where my career journey has taken me. I continue to learn and enhance my experience even though I am now about 7 years from retiring. I love this work (and I guess it shows).

  • Lauren on 2014-05-29 10:42:15 PM

    I'm also finding it difficult to find employment in the HR field. I'm older, with 15 years of retail experience, and trying to jump into human resources has been difficult. This is in spite of having a university degree and almost completed an HRM diploma. Education is important but I find if you do not have the experience it is difficult to get your foot in the door. I'm also not applying to managerial positions, and do not expect the big salary to start, but would like an employer to see what skills I do bring to the table.

  • Nic on 2014-06-03 12:50:16 PM

    I would suggest to current students who are pursuing a degree in HR or any degree for that matter, try to obtain a cop-op position or volunteer experience (related to your field of study) while you are in school. Do not wait until you graduate to try to obtain work-related experience. You will open a lot more doors this way.

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