How to Build a Career in Human Resources

Here’s how to get your foot in the door

It’s a typical chicken-and-egg scenario: You want to build a career in HR, but you don’t have any experience to get that first job. How can you get your foot in the door?

I’m often asked this question, especially with the growing focus on—and need for—human resources professionals of all kinds.

Think about the critical role HR has played over the past few years. Who helped make the mass transition from in-person to remote work possible? Developed new company policies, training materials and initiatives to hire, onboard and engage remote employees? Counselled team members struggling with burnout during the pandemic? Organized events and team-building exercises to boost employee morale and connect remote teams? Hired new team members in today’s historically tight labour market? And so much more.

There was so much change in the workplace so quickly, human resources job postings in Canada soared throughout the pandemic, increasing by 64% from February 2020 to July 2021. And while they’ve since fallen slightly, demand for HR professionals today is still 75% higher than pre-pandemic levels. So, it’s no wonder the Canadian government predicted 49,000 job openings in human resources between 2019 and 2028.

How do you know HR is for you?

Human Resources is a broad field, encompassing everything from recruiting, onboarding and hiring to workplace culture, compensation, career pathing and skills development. How do you know it’s right for you?

According to Pema Evaski-Mclean, HR Business Partner at Altis Recruitment, “Passion for the work is a prerequisite for having a sustainable future in the field of HR.”

If you’re keenly interested in the field, the next step is to do your homework. “Find creative ways to increase your knowledge and skillset in the areas you’re curious about (both personally and professionally),” Pema says. “That could be through volunteering, courses, seminars, workshops, reading books and journals, participating in committees, or sitting on boards.”

The key, she says, is to “make it your goal to consistently build your resume, and your network.”

Career case study: Pema Evaski-McLean

There’s no set way to get into the field. Sometimes, HR professionals “fall into” their role, like Pema, who took a temp role as an HR administrator while trying to decide if she wanted to pursue graduate studies in the field of psychotherapy. Lucky for us, that role changed her career. Within six weeks, the company offered her a permanent role, which clinched her decision to continue working in the field.

“I started with an education that lent easily to an HR career trajectory,” she says. Then, once in her full-time role, she decided to bolster her skills by getting a post-grad certificate in HR Management. She also said yes to every opportunity that came her way so she could continue building her skills ‘toolkit’ before deciding which area of HR she wanted to focus on.

“Ultimately, I decided I wanted to focus on all of it!” she says.

How can you get your foot in the door?

Seven ideas to consider

As with any career, getting an education in a related field provides a good foundation (for example, a certificate or degree in human resources).

However, education on its own is not always enough to start your career. To get that first job, you’ll also need to demonstrate a keen interest in the field. Here are some ideas to kick-start your HR career:

  1. Target companies you admire. Make a list of the top companies that appeal to you, and then apply for roles that you are qualified to do (they don’t have to be HR roles). Once hired, let your skills shine. Be reliable, communicative and open to learning – and let the HR team know that you’re interested in their field and would like to join their team. Make those connections, and then apply to any internal HR roles that come up. As Pema says, “If you’re employed in an organization and have opportunities to work on anything HR-adjacent, be available for it! This will give you exposure to the actual work while helping you determine if it’s something you are truly interested in.” Some examples of “HR-adjacent” areas include the social committee, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and any initiatives related to internal communications or team engagement.
  2. Look to join a start-up in any role. Startups, especially when in the early stages, often look to hire multi-skilled team members who can pitch in and help in a number of areas, providing a great launchpad to build your skills and experience. Apply for roles you are qualified to do, and then, once you’re hired, show that you’re keen to help out in other areas like HR. As you demonstrate your value, you may be called upon to help with people, culture, payroll and other HR needs.
  3. Volunteer for a small non-profit, charitable organization, association or foundation. Many small non-profits and charitable organizations benefit from volunteer support in a range of key areas like communications, marketing and yes, human resources. Look for an organization whose purpose or mission aligns with your own values and contact them to see if they require any support. This is a great way to build your resume.
  4. Apply for contract and temporary positions. The “gig” economy—part-time, temp and contract work—is booming, employing one in ten Canadian workers. All kinds of organizations are always on the lookout for temp talent (check out our job board), and my recommendation is to test the waters a bit (like Pema did), apply for HR-adjacent roles in industries that appeal to you and make real connections with the HR team at the company.
  5. Enroll in certificate programs or free courses. There are so many areas of HR, it’s sometimes hard to choose. Taking courses in specialty areas of HR or in anything related to people and culture will not only help you decide what you like but will also help boost your skills and qualifications, shore up your resume and help you get noticed. To get some ideas, browse these courses on Coursera. Courses can cover areas like:
    1. Diversity, Equity & inclusion – Indigenous History, Anti-Black Racism
    2. Payroll and Benefits
    3. Compensation Strategies
    4. Employee Engagement
    5. HR Analytics
  6. Join HR professional networking groups, both virtually and in person. There are many HR networking groups where you can share your passion for HR, make connections and ask for advice and help to get started. You can also form meaningful connections with others in these groups and make a good ‘business case’ for yourself about how you would be a value-add to their organization. Groups to consider include:
    1. Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)
    2. Human Resources (HR) Professionals
    3. HR Professionals – CANADA Chapter
    4. Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) – including chapters in cities across Canada like Toronto and Ottawa
    5. Resources for Humans (Lattice)
    6. Black HR Professionals of Canada
  7. Look for a mentor: Whether through any of the groups above or through your own personal or professional network, seek out a seasoned HR professional who can introduce you to others within the field and ‘keep an ear to the ground’ for potential opportunities. A mentor can also answer questions and keep you focused on growing your career.

Keep your chin up

Building any meaningful career takes time and patience. Sometimes you have to ask 100 times to land the job you want. You might get 99 no’s before you get one yes. The key is to stay positive, get out there and network and ask for help to secure that first position. From there, you’ll grow exponentially and never look back.

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Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn co-founded Altis Recruitment with a dream to connect people with meaningful work. She talks about HR trends, hiring best practices, and how to bring humanity to leadership.

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