HR Career Path: How to Develop and Plan for It

HR Career Path
An HR career path can be extremely rewarding, challenging, and will keep you engaged and learning at every step.

Key points:

  • HR jobs are rewarding, varied, and filled with opportunity for growth and advancement
  • A thoughtful, written HR career plan will help you make smart decisions about work and educational opportunities
  • Take your time on your HR career path; your patience will be rewarded

Human Resources (HR) expertise is in demand: job listings for the HR sector were up 50% in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Certainly, the workplace chaos caused by COVID-19—pivoting to remote work, navigating the return to work, and managing the Great Resignation—highlighted the value of HR professionals and their problem-solving skills.

The job outlook is positive, too: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 7% growth in HR management jobs over the next 10 years—that’s about 16,300 new openings each year. But what does it take to have a successful HR career? Where do you even begin? It can be hard to sort through all the available information and the possible HR fields—we’ve been there.

Whether you’re looking to start your journey or you’ve stagnated in your HR career and are looking for a boost, this post offers an insider’s guide to navigating your HR career path.

What Exactly Does an HR Professional Do?

If you’re reading this post—and thinking about or actively pursuing a career in HR—you probably have a decent idea of some of the responsibilities an HR professional takes on. These may include (but are not limited to):

  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Training new employees
  • Managing payroll, employee benefits, and tax filing
  • Tracking and ensuring compliance to industry, state, and federal regulations
  • Fostering positive workplace culture
  • Developing and implementing policy
  • Offering workshops and other continuing education/professional development options
  • Supporting health and wellness
  • Overseeing workplace safety
  • Ensuring workplace fairness, inclusion, and diversity
  • Maintaining employee-employer relations
  • Mediating conflicts, responding to complaints, and handling disciplinary action
  • Completing other administrative tasks

HR presents the opportunity to positively impact everyone in an organization—and offers plenty of room for dynamic career growth. Understanding the sector and having a plan in place will help you achieve your goals.

Is HR for You?

As the above list demonstrates, a career in HR is not for the mild-mannered or disorganized. While there’s no single ideal HR personality profile, certain strengths and qualities will certainly serve you well in this position. In HR, you will need to: 

  • Communicate effectively and tactfully 
  • Be trustworthy, impartial, and disciplined 
  • Advocate for others 
  • Be organized 
  • Be a problem-solver 
  • Enjoy working with both people and data 
  • Be at ease with technology and ready to learn 
  • Have strong ethics 
  • Manage others 
  • Multitask to keep on top of all job aspects
  • Be comfortable making difficult decisions

That may sound like you. Even if it doesn’t, consider steps you can take to develop some of these skills. For example, read up on time-management tips or communication techniques, or try out HR software.

Develop Your HR Career Plan

A career plan will give you clarity, focus, and a path to follow through your professional life. Of course you will update it regularly as you have new experiences and progress—but having a clear starting plan will help you make smart decisions about educational and employment opportunities. Your career path is unique to you: your ambitions, your skills, your interests. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you chart a career progression:

If you have an ideal job in mind, write that down. And then try to answer:
  • What skills do I need to hold this job? How do I gain them?
  • What experiences will lead me there?
  • What are the career stepping stones? (More on this in the section on the HR ladder)
If you can’t yet envision your end goal—that’s totally fine! Ask yourself:
  • What industries interest me?
  • What skills would I like to develop? How can I do that?
  • What experiences do I want to have?
  • What roles will help me acquire them?

Write down your answers and arrange them into a working career plan. A number of worksheets are available to help organize your thoughts, including this one by SHRM and this, by AIHR. Revisit your plan regularly and update.

HR Career Progression

Understanding the different roles within the HR industry will help you pinpoint those you want to target as you chart a path to your ideal position.

Generalist vs. Specialist

Just as the titles imply, an HR generalist is responsible for a range of tasks, while a specialist focuses on a specific area of HR. Smaller organizations are more likely to have one or a couple of HR generalists to manage their personnel needs; a larger company may have a team of specialists with generalists to support them.

As you start your education and career, you certainly don’t need to decide which type of role you’d like to take on, but it’s worth considering: do you like multitasking and variation in your days? Or do you prefer to develop deep expertise on a specific topic, and be part of a larger team effort?

Educational requirements 

Most organizations will be looking for at least a Bachelor’s degree of Arts or Science in Human Resources or another business-related program. HR directors or VPs generally hold a Master’s level degree in Business or Human Resources.

The HR ladder

While everyone’s career path is different, here are the general rungs of the HR ladder, from entry-level to senior executive positions.

HR Assistant

An HR assistant sits just above interns on the corporate ladder: this is an entry-level job meant for new graduates eager to learn the ropes. They take on the daily (sometimes menial) administrative tasks. Shine in this role and get ready to climb.

HR Associate

HR associates are usually generalists, ready for any task that comes their way. An associate can be a slightly longer-term position than the HR assistant, and is an opportunity to gather a spectrum of experience. Generalists in associate positions may be in training to become a specialist.

HR Specialists

An HR specialist may land anywhere on the corporate ladder. At lower levels, they take on a specific role (recruiter, analyst, payroll specialist, training and development coordinator, etc.) and report to HR managers. With more experience, the role can become more specialized and include aspects of management.

HR Manager

In large organizations, HR managers are usually considered a mid-level role and oversee an organization’s HR program while managing HR teams and ensuring compliance with policy. They can drive change, set strategic HR goals, and provide important connections between employees and upper-level management. In smaller organizations, the HR manager is often equivalent to a VP.

HR Director

HR directors supervise all HR staff and guide the department. The director usually develops and implements company policy; they may also take on a regional role.

Vice-President/Chief Human Resources Officer

The VP is involved in high-level decision-making, and is usually just one step below the company CEO. VPs report directly to the CEO.

Specific tasks for every position vary greatly depending on the company’s structure, size, and sector.

Start or Re-Energize Your HR Career Today

An HR career is rewarding, challenging, and will keep you engaged and learning at every step. To successfully navigate HR career options and find the best path for you, take time to consider your goals and design a career plan.

Be patient as you move through your HR career steps. By making informed choices—and being open to opportunities and flexible in the face of disruptions—you’ll achieve your goals and enjoy the journey.

No matter where you’re at in your career, an all-in-one HRIS system can help you track tasks, store data, engage employees, and more, giving you everything you need to manage your people.


The Sentric Team

The Sentric Team

At Sentric, we help businesses make people management easier with industry-leading technology and standout support.

Sentric HR & Payroll Insights

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