HR Leads Business

Jan 21, 2021 | Ruth Hartgen, PHR, CIR, HRCI HR Manager

Do You Need a Degree to Work in HR?

Human resource professionals are in high demand. With companies all over the world adapting to new ways of working, employers need HR practitioners who can support business continuity while guiding their workforces through change. But what if you don’t have a degree in HR? Can you still enter the field?

Experts say that yes, you can. “There is no barrier to entry to work in HR,” says Matt Stollak, SPHR, Associate Professor of Business Administration at St. Norbert College. On-the-job experience, online learning and certifications are all credible sources of HR knowledge.

Here’s how to make an impression on hiring managers, with or without a degree.

Focus on Real-World Application

You can gain valuable HR experience from an entry-level job requiring only a high school diploma or equivalent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a financial clerk position provides entry into payroll and compensation. Similarly, an information clerk position can lead to a general HR assistant position. An entry-level recruiting position can be beneficial, too. “Talent acquisition is a great way to learn the basics about the function and how to bring talent into the organization,” says Alex Smith, SPHR, Chief HR Officer for the City of Memphis, Tenn. 

On-the-job experience is a valid learning method. Even individuals who hold degrees in HR need experience to cement their learning. Situations that appear black-and-white in a textbook, for instance, may be much more ambiguous in real life. “I can't teach them the very first time they have to fire an employee or what to do if suddenly there is an incidence of violence at work,” Stollak says. “I can only bring it up, and talk about what resources are available.”

Furthermore, only real-life experience will help you clarify your long-term goals. Take internships to get experience and exposure to how HR operates across different industries, Smith suggests. HR at a manufacturing plant, for example, deals with a different set of employee relations issues than their peers at a financial services technology company. Regardless of your current role, you can ask to learn more about HR by sitting in on meetings or finding a mentor in your organization.

Broaden Sources of Knowledge

Learning about topics beyond HR is essential, too. HR encompasses people interactions, management and supporting business needs. On-the-job experience will teach you the basic concepts you need to practice HR, but the competencies employers are looking for transcend business basics. The BLS notes, for instance, that employers look for detail-oriented candidates with leadership traits like good communication, decision-making and interpersonal skills for a role as an HR specialist

“My background was all in humanities,” says Laurie Ruettimann, author of “Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career.” “It really made me understand how to communicate, how to write, how to think and how to anticipate human behavior.” 

Critical-thinking skills help you learn to assess situations and adapt quickly. Meanwhile, business statistics classes can strengthen your grasp of analytics. Students say they want to go into HR because they “love people,” but people aren’t an HR professional’s exclusive priority. “A key part of being a great HR leader is being a great business leader,” Smith says. “Learning the business that you're a part of is an important aspect of being successful in the role.”

Make Your Case for Being a Good Hire

HR jobs, especially at the upper levels, often require at least a four year college degree, if not an MBA. But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply if you don’t have either. Certification can help your resume stand out. 

Unlike most HR certifications, the Associate Professional in Human Resources® (aPHR®) exam doesn’t require experience before you can take it, and passing the exam demonstrates mastery of the fundamentals of HR. “It's a good benchmark as to whether or not somebody understands basic concepts in the world of human resources,” Ruettimann says. “And in that way, it might be more helpful than a college degree.”

Develop a portfolio of your experiences at an entry-level job or internship, the continuous learning you engage in on your own time, as well as any certifications you’ve earned. This will help you make a better case for why a company should hire you for a job in HR.

Learn more about aPHR certification.