How to Become a Human Resources Specialist

Human resources (HR) are a key part of many growing businesses. From training to compensation to performance management, human resources specialists identify opportunities to foster productivity and engagement within the workforce and drive business value. When it comes to attracting new talent, a human resources professional plays an integral role in that process—managing both the employer brand and job candidate experience.

In addition to building up the company, an HR specialist advocates for employees and be knowledgeable about workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and other factors that affect workers’ development. Getting an education in human resources or a related discipline is usually the first step to becoming an HR specialist. Possibilities to advance within the field are wide, given the variety of certifications and specializations available.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Human Resource Specialist?

Becoming an HR specialist generally starts with earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources, business, or a related field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Undergraduate HR degree programs can last three to four years.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 73% of employers hired college graduates with one to two years of HR-specific experience for entry-level HR jobs (PDF,1.4 MB). SHRM also reported that HR professionals come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds.

Some enroll in a master of human resources program or an MBA program with a concentration in HR, right after their undergraduate studies or further on in their career. Completing a master’s program is also an option if you’re transitioning to HR from another industry. For example, someone with a background in law might decide they want to work as a labor relations specialist for a government agency. While their legal training and experience may provide them with a firm grasp of labor laws and enable them to prevent and mediate complex disputes, a master’s in HR may very well equip them with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to develop personnel manuals or training programs, lead executive searches, and carry out other essential HR functions.

How long it takes to become a human resource specialist depends if you are full-time or part-time, but most bachelor’s degrees take four years and master’s degrees take one to two years. Possessing an advanced HR degree may give you a competitive edge, particularly when vying for senior-level HR positions.

Human Resources Education Requirements

Human resources degree programs vary from school to school, so you can expect some differences in education requirements, as well as the delivery format. Certain universities will allow you to earn your human resources degree online, and others require in-person attendance. While no two human resources degree programs are identical, there are some similarities in what you’ll learn.

According to SHRM, the key content areas for an undergraduate HR curriculum include:

  • Change management
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Employee and labor relations
  • Employment law
  • Globalization
  • HR career planning
  • HR’s role in organizations
  • Human resource information systems (HRIS)
  • Job analysis and job design
  • Managing a diverse workforce
  • Metrics and measurement of HR
  • Organizational development
  • Performance management
  • Staffing (recruitment and selection)

In a master’s in HR degree program, you’ll likely explore similar topic areas as an undergraduate HR major. But the master’s program is designed to allow students to dive into those areas in greater detail and specialize if they wish to. Key content areas for an HR master’s student include:

  • Compensation
  • Global HR
  • Employment law
  • Labor management relations
  • Staffing, performance management, workforce planning, and talent management
  • Analytics, metrics, and problem-solving in human resources
  • Change management, leadership, and organizational behavior

If you’re pursuing an MBA with an HR concentration, your coursework might look a little different than what’s included in a master’s in human resources program. The MBA melds business courses like accounting, finance, strategic operations, and statistics, with human resources management concepts. The result is a curriculum exposing students to the following lessons, and more:

  • A comprehensive overview of human resource management
  • How to manage individual and team performance
  • How to manage change for competitive advantage
  • How to manage risks in human resources

Some schools incorporate internships into their curriculum, give students the opportunity to conduct an independent study project supervised by a faculty member or HR professional, encourage students to engage in HR-related volunteer experience or require students to complete a capstone research project. Such program features allow you to apply the knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom to real life situations.

5 Steps to Becoming an HR Specialist

In a single HR department, you may find a specialist with an MBA and one with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. Alternatively, one may kick start their career as an HR assistant, or work as a line manager at a large company before moving onto an HR specialist role. From recent graduates to chief officers, the HR field is full of professionals with different levels of education and expertise.

So, how do you get into human resources? There is no conventional path to become an HR specialist but the SHRM suggests a few typical steps for those considering a career in this field:

  1. Select HR as your Major

    Completing an undergraduate degree program in HR can help you to build foundational knowledge in the field. If an HR major is unavailable at your desired school, you may want to look into earning a business degree with a concentration in HR or pursuing a field of study related to employment relations or organizational behavior.

  2. Expand your Network

    There are a number of ways to grow your list of HR contacts. You can connect with aspiring HR specialists in your class or reach out to HR professionals from your school’s alumni network. Obtaining student membership from a relevant professional organization like the SHRM or the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMAHR), is another option. Most membership-based associations offer industry networking events multiple times a year and have regional chapters.

  3. Gain Experience through Internships

    Experiential learning is critical to a career in HR and internships may provide that. If you’re currently working in another field and you’re considering a career shift, you can volunteer to serve as HR liaison for your department to get some hands-on experience.

  4. Apply for an HR Job

    Seek job opportunities that align with your career goals, interests and experience. Some companies may come to campus and recruit recent college graduates for training programs and entry-level HR roles.

  5. Advance your Career

    You can earn a graduate degree related to HR or ascend to higher level positions through promotion. Consider attending an HR leadership development program or earning a certification. Whether you’re new to the field or have years of experience, make positive contributions to your team.
    As stated earlier, the HR career field is quite versatile. Regardless of the path you take to become an HR professional, having transferable skills and a strong work ethic can help you day to day.

Why Become an HR Specialist?

There are several reasons why you might be drawn to the human resources field. If you’re a sound decision-maker, strong communicator, and you jump at the opportunity to help or spend time with others, then this people-centric career may be a good fit for you.

On an interpersonal level, HR specialists are responsible for creating and maintaining positive relationships with employees to maximize productivity and boost morale. They are strategic and competitive in recruiting the best workforce talent to enhance the value of the company they work for, big or small.

People in HR have a knack for navigating complex workplace dynamics (i.e. younger people entering the workforce with a different set of expectations). For example, millennials tend to have higher job turnover, which can limit retention and recruiting. This often requires sharp problem-solving skills. HR specialists are also responsible for leading training classes, guiding people to relevant resources to help them improve their performance, and at times, forging mentoring relationships.

Each of these duties, among others, can help to shape corporate policy. If you’re searching for opportunities to influence company-wide initiatives and help people grow professionally, pursuing an HR career may allow you to do so.

Is Human Resources Certification Worth It?

What is HR certification? An HR certification signifies to the business community and other HR professionals that you are committed to the field and have firm grasp of HR concepts and best practices. SHRM offers two types of voluntary professional certifications to help you enhance your industry knowledge, gaining insight into the latest developments and business needs in HR. You can earn:

  • The Society for Human Resource Management-Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) certification
  • The Society for Human Resource Management-Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) certification

Both are considered the global standard for HR certification. For each SHRM certification, there are eligibility requirements, including minimum education and field practice. HR professionals with less than a bachelor’s degree may qualify for both certifications as long as they’ve worked a certain amount of years in an HR role. After determining whether or not you are eligible, move forward and take the certification exam. Be sure to research exam dates and fees. You can study on your own or attend one of SHRM’s prep courses.

Whether or not an HR certification is right for you depends on what you want out of your career. However, according to the HR Certificate Institute’s 2016 report on best HR practices (PDF, 532 KB), companies that valued an HR certification performed better than the industry average by 14% over a five-year period.

What Makes an HR Manager?

While your soft skills can be useful to your work as an HR specialist, an HR certification may help you achieve manager status. HR managers oversee the following functions and duties:

  • Plan and coordinate an organization’s administrative duties.
  • Link an organization’s management with its employees.
  • Oversee recruitment, interview, selection, and hiring processes.
  • Mediate disputes, direct disciplinary procedures, and plan employee benefits.
  • Consult with other managers on HR issues such as equal employment opportunity.
  • Supervise HR specialist and support staff.

Human resources management also works as a liaison to top executives and consults with them on strategic planning and talent acquisition. Some HR manager jobs are:

  • Employee relations managers. They administer labor contracts regarding wages and benefits, labor complaints between employees and management, and oversee employment policies in unions (as well as non-unions).
  • Payroll managers. They supervise and make sure payroll procedures are processed in a correct and timely manner.
  • Recruiting managers. They oversee recruiting and hiring talent.

What degree is needed to become a human resource manager? According to the BLS, most HR managerial positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in human resources or business management. Others require a master’s degree. Either way, it’s important to back your formal education with experience demonstrating your abilities in managing projects and leading others.

8 Skills that HR Managers Use Every Day

A workforce that is engaged, satisfied, and productive is necessary for a company to reach its goals. A 2019 SHRM article notes that HR managers play a pivotal role in ensuring that employees are all of these things. HR managers are acutely attuned to influence a work environment and work structure. They stress the importance of empathy. Here are some skills and tips that can be useful to your day-to-day work as an HR manager:

1. Be Teachable

Being teachable is a useful skill to have in any industry. Take a conflict management workshop or leadership seminar; a lack of training can lead to poor managerial skills.

2. Be Self-Aware

Ask yourself how you can increase and incentivize employee productivity to build their capabilities. And don’t discount quality time with employees—develop mentor relationships between supervisors and direct reports to foster professional growth.

3. Be Open

Consider using anonymous feedback surveys to inform and modify your management style. Being mindful of your performance as a manager can help you to better serve your employees.

4. Be Transparent

Effectively delegate tasks to team members, set clear expectations and let go of perfectionism.

5. Develop a Mantra

Come up with a phrase that inspires your employees. Your mantra can capture the company’s mission and values.

6. Be an Effective Communicator

Strong communicators are always listening to others. As an HR manager, have conversations with your employees in settings that are free of distractions. Learn how to validate their feelings, provide compassion, and emphasize your availability to support them. Active listening is key when it comes to conflict resolution.

7. Be Direct

It’s important to be direct and straightforward when conveying information or disciplining someone, rather than beating around the bush. Try not to sugarcoat anything and be mindful of your employee’s emotional response to what you are saying.

8. Be Engaging

Always engage with the employees you manage, whether that means following up after delivering news or delegating tasks, offering to answer any questions, or getting to know your teammates.

Human Resource Careers and Salaries

The HR industry has many opportunities to leverage and grow your career. For example, you can end up working as a human resources director. According to the BLS, employment in the HR industry is expected to grow fast as or faster than the average for all jobs.

HR Specialists


Apart from the financial gain and growth potential, a role in human resources may provide you with numerous opportunities to do meaningful work and interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. If that is something that you crave, then a career in HR may be a fit for you.

Last Updated July 2020