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Making the Leap into HR Without an HR Degree—4 Things You Need to Do First!

HR without an HR Degree

According to an Association of American Colleges and Universities study, 91% of employers  believe “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” 

Having spent fifteen years in the higher education industry, with degrees in communication and counseling, I knew I wanted to pivot into Human Resources. It seems to be a common career move for individuals who are ready to leave student affairs colleagues, as a number of my LinkedIn connections have reached out to me for guidance on how to make the career jump from a college campus to an HR office.  

Although I didn’t have a formal education in HR, nor were the letters “H” or “R” in any of my job titles, I knew my professional experiences could translate well to a people operations position.  The key is being able to translate your experiences in a way that requires the Hiring Manager who reviews your resume to easily make the connection between what you did in your previous jobs with the position for which you are applying.

Red Clover prides itself on being a firm that hires consultants who bring diversity of thought and experiences to the role and to the client.  Managing Director Jen L’Estrange believes her ability to hire diverse leaders outside of the world of Corporate Human Resources sets Red Clover apart from other consulting firms on the market.  That diversity of thought is how Red Clover positions itself in its marketing and candidate sourcing; so if you can find a company that values your experiences outside the HR field, then that’s a company you want to research.  

As someone who made the career change to a very satisfying HR consulting role at a firm that respects and values my unique perspective, here are four things you need to do before you take that leap!

Sell Yourself

In order to sell yourself, you need to be confident in the product you are selling — YOU!  Take time to self-reflect and put together a robust inventory of your skills and experiences that have prepared you to be the next great HR Practitioner.  

Read the job description.  Of your experiences, which are transferable skills that directly to the role for which you are applying?  Build your resumè around those. If the position is one where you’ll be dealing with employee relations issues every day, highlight job responsibilities where you had direct oversight over people and coached and guided them in their interactions with each other.  You may not necessarily be familiar with the ins and outs of employment law, but perhaps you reviewed employment contracts with legal counsel. Be sure to draw those parallels to demonstrate your experience and skill set. 

Although it may be tough, remove irrelevant experience from your resume.  As a housing professional, I planned hundreds of educational programs — and as proud of them as I am, they don’t necessarily translate to an HR role.  They won’t help my resume move past an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) bot. These experiences that you cut from your resume may not have an immediate impact, but still keep them in mind when you interview; that’s where sharing these experiences could prove useful.

In your resume, reframe your experience.  Update your phrases and terminology so it applies to the job posting you’re applying to, not the roles you had.  For example, the term “learning outcomes” is HUGE in the world of higher education, but may not translate to other industries.  I updated my resume to attest to my ability to meet Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and establish and reach metrics. I also updated my language to wording that’s more understandable in the corporate world.  

Talk to People

If you can’t talk to people, you can’t succeed in HR.  Degree and work experience don’t amount to much if you are clueless on how to manage an employee crying in your office.  

A progressive company will want to hire someone who is uniquely able to talk to people. They will be looking for a professional who understands the need for empathy, can navigate different communication styles and can listen to and advocate for all employees.  It’s not like these skills are exclusively taught in HR degree programs. Someone’s ability to relate to the person across the desk from them is gleaned from a variety of real life experiences, not coursework.  

So worry less about the degree on your resume and focus on being able to demonstrate your emotional intelligence (or EQ) throughout the HR hiring process and interviews.  EQ is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.

When you’re waiting in the lobby before the interview, talk to the receptionist.  As you meet potential members of your team, engage with them, rather than giving in to the urge to awkwardly sit in silence while waiting for everyone else to show up.  Learn things about them and reference those things throughout the interview and in the thank you email.  

Begin building the relationship with your future manager during your time with them.  Frame all your experiences in a way that demonstrates your EQ and relationship-building acumen and the hiring manager will look at your degree in biology or journalism as a mere footnote, rather than the whole story.

Increase Your Learning

As much as there is incredible value in being a strong relationship builder, it doesn’t mean you can get away with knowing absolutely nothing about Human Resources.  If you are serious about breaking into the field, you want to edify your knowledge by staying current on employment law, understanding new hiring trends, and regularly reading personal, professional and business development books.  

It’s rare during the recruitment process that you’ll need to outline all the legal intricacies of a paid leave law, but you will want to demonstrate a general understanding of how paid leave will affect the workforce you’re attempting to manage.  If the role you’re applying for is heavily focused on running the candidate interview process, and you only have nominal experience, staying up to date through your own research will best prepare you to articulate your own philosophy, approach and expected outcomes when asked to explain them during an interview.  

Take some time before putting your name out there in HR circles to understand what practitioners are dealing with, and devote time to independent learning in those areas.  Connect with HR professionals on LinkedIn and follow and engage with their content to better understand their experiences. There are so many HR resources available online for you to increase your knowledge base and be able to speak about human resources in an informed way, even if you’ve spent the last five years working in retail.  

When you are researching a potential future employer, does the website frequently refer to a specific operational strategy?  Learn about that strategy! If the core values of the company are tied to a leadership book, make it a point to read that book and be able to talk about its principles when you’re on-site.  Does the CEO regularly quote a specific author or thought leader on his LinkedIn profile? Learn about that person. This makes the interview more about you, your knowledge of the company and your interview savvy — not about the lack of a specific degree on your resume.  

Red Clover includes Society for Human Resources membership and certification as part of its professional development plan.  Being a member of the SHRM online community is an incredibly valuable resource if you’re dipping your toe into HR waters.  

Their online library is vast and contains all one needs to learn all about the current world at work.  They also provide online forums for members to interact and seek knowledge from other HR practitioners.  I never post, but I read the threads that interest me and it provides me insight into a lot of diverse voices and opinions in the field.  

Get Certified

Even after all this reading and research, you want to stand out from the crowd even more and be sure you’re a top candidate?   Consider earning an HR certification. Preparing for the SHRM or PHR exams is a true crash course in learning about human resources.  Passing the exam gives you some much-deserved street cred in the industry. Each exam has its own set of prerequisites, so research to make sure you pick the right designation for you.  

Even if you don’t have a role within an HR department, the testing organization may accept experience in an HR-adjacent role to meet the prerequisites to qualify for the exam.  If your current roles offers professional development benefits, make a business case for them to financially support your exam prep or to cover the exam fee, especially if you are in a people-facing role.  

Making a career change can be scary, but being as prepared as possible for a shift in your professional trajectory can make all the difference.  Utilize the variety of resources available to successfully pivot into a different career field. Challenge yourself to learn more about the prospective field you’re interested in.  Connect with Red Clover and our consultants on LinkedIn so we can serve as valuable HR subject matter experts and resources.

Written by: Eric Mochnacz

Learn more about Eric on LinkedIn