Sharpen Your Pencils - HR Pros Go Back to School
Back to school?
Keeping competitive in today's business world is a job in and of itself. As more and more college graduates flood the marketplace, benchmarks for achievement grow ever higher. Technological innovation and the globalization of business can reinvent the workplace in a matter of months, or even weeks. Staying up-to-date on trends in business practice is vital to all employers, and most especially to human resource departments.
But while keeping current is just another element of successful HR management, there is little tangible evidence to go with it, other than a job well done. And while that's something that will always speak for itself, it's generally not something you can put on your resume. That's where advanced degrees and certifications enter the picture.
There are two types of certifications for HR professional, both offered by the HRCI, Human Resource Certification Institute (affiliated w/ SHRM), the PHR and SPHR certifications (which stand for Professional in Human Resources and Senior Professional in Human Resources, respectively).
Both certifications consist of an exam that tests general knowledge of HR at the technical level (for PHR) and the strategic and policy level (for SPHR). The HRCI guidelines state candidates for PHR certification "must have two years experience as a practitioner, educator, researcher, or consultant." Recent graduates and currently enrolled students may also take the exam, provided they do so within a year of their graduation. The student/graduate then has five years to complete the two-year HR exempt-level work requirement. If a student already meets the two-year experience requirement - e.g. took time off and worked for a few years before completing his or her coursework - that student must then take the exam as a regular HR professional. For SPHR certification, HRCI "strongly recommends?candidates attempting the SPHR exam have 6-8 years of HR exempt-level experience." Recent grads and students are ineligible for SPHR certification.
~ Insofar as advanced degrees go, the varieties are nearly limitless. Many business schools offer MBAs specifically tailored for careers in labor relations and human resources, with just as many colleges and universities offering the degree of Master of Sciences in Human Resources (M.S.H.R.) or general M.S. degrees with concentrations in HR, either by itself or in conjunction with related fields. Some schools even offer dual degrees such as an MBA/J.D. Doctorates in human resources are generally offered as Ph.D.s in more general fields such as social science, with concentrations in HR. Ph.D. programs are almost universally geared towards preparing their candidates for careers in research and higher education, rather than advancement in the business world.
With this many offerings, what is the best choice for the HR professional? The certification vs. degree debate can often be a heated one. Carla McKay, a former HR manager at the Washington office of William M. Mercer Consulting, "I personally think a Master's degree allows you to bring more to the table, [however] some of my favorite colleagues have set out to prove me wrong." Certification has the advantage of being both less expensive and less time-consuming than earning an advanced degree. It is, however, simply a testament to the individual's knowledge and experience in HR, a tangible accreditation supporting what your resume already maintains.
An advanced degree proves the value of earned experience as well. Describing her own experience earning a Master's in Industrial Labor Relations, McKay commented, "The most successful [students] had years of experience." Additionally, degree candidates gain valuable skills and a greater knowledge of their subject. The type of degree program best for you depends on your desired career path. The general consensus of professors, students, and HR professionals is that an MBA provides a background in all aspects of business, from accounting to statistics, even if the concentration is in HR. Focused Master's degrees, on the other hand, allow student to focus primarily on HR topics.
~ It's a question of breadth versus depth, with professionals - and employers - each having a personal opinion as to which is most desirable. If your undergraduate degree is in business, and you are looking to specialize, an M.S. is probably your best bet. If, on the other hand, you don't have a business background, or if you know an employer is looking for someone with a comprehensive understanding of business, an MBA might better suit your needs.
Once you've chosen your degree program, there is yet another set of decisions to be made: Who's paying the bill, and for how long?
Virtually all companies will pay for certification. It's a "no brainer," according to McKay. The monetary investment is minimal, and employees lose, at most, a day of work in order to take the exam. Footing the bill for a Master's degree is a considerably more expensive prospect. Most companies have some sort of work-related tuition reimbursement program, but it's not the equivalent of a free ride. Corporations usually require would-be students to sign a contract stipulating their continued presence at the firm for a certain period of time, usually a year or two, after they have earned their degree. This ensures that companies get their money's worth from their graduates, in case they plan to (gasp!) take their MBA and run.
Some businesses agree to pony up for a one- or two-year sabbatical that allows students to return to school full-time, while others will only pay for summer or night-time classes, thus minimizing the operational costs incurred by hiring temporary replacements for their matriculating employees. When the options are open, HR professionals weigh in on both sides of the debate. McKay is a self-proclaimed "staunch supporter of full-time," citing the risk of burnout and decreased efficiency at work for student-employees with far too much on their plates. In an article on the importance of advanced degrees in HR published in the November 1996 issue of HR Magazine, however, Towers Perrin consultant Joe Gibbons is vehement about employees staying in the workplace, "You should never leave the battlefield," he says. "If the soldier is not in the battle, the soldier is no longer battle-hardened. Get your degree by mail if you have to."
~ Perhaps he should have said "e-mail." The newest advent in business education is the on-line degree program. The May 15th issue of Forbes features a cover story on the rise of continuing education via the Internet, already dubbed "webucation." For business people that want to update their skills without losing their edge, it's the perfect option. Although right now such programs only provide certifications, they are well on their way to achieving accreditation and the ability to grant degrees. Meanwhile, established colleges and universities are offering more and more courses online, cutting costs as well as students' commutes.
All in all, getting an advanced degree or certification in HR has little downside. According to an article written by Rosana Canton, the executive director of GOALS, which was published in Echoes: The SHRM Student Newsletter, starting salaries in 1998 for recent grads of nationally-ranked HR programs (working in the private sector) averaged $55,000 and ranged from $42,000 - $85,000. Employers in today's market are struggling to retain a competitive workforce, and are increasingly willing to pay for employee education in return for some loyalty (albeit contractually enforced). Tuition reimbursement programs can reduce or even eliminate the hefty price tag on degrees, which normally offsets the accompanying salary increase. And with the number and type of educational programs flourishing, it is easier than ever to maintain your lifestyle while attaining your degree.
For more information on HR certification go to shrm.org.
For a list of graduate programs in HR and related subjects go to petersons.com, then click on "Pursue Graduate Programs."