MBA unlocks doors for HR

Survey shows about one-quarter of employers plan to hire MBA graduates for HR positions

More and more employers are choosing HR candidates who have an MBA. According to a 2007 survey, about 25 per cent of 1,029 companies worldwide plan to hire MBA graduates for HR positions in 2007. This is up from 20 per cent in 2006 and 17 per cent in 2004. The survey found MBAs are most in demand for mid-level positions (51 per cent).

The Corporate Recruiters Survey 2007 was conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the McLean, Va.-based provider of the Graduate Management Assessment Test (GMAT).

Health and safety specialist Simon Kaplansky intends to be one such manager. Despite years of experience as an HR manager and making significant progress towards his Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation, Kaplansky said an MBA is essential for long-term professional development.

“Getting your MBA is like getting your driver’s license. You will definitely need it some day,” said Kaplansky.

Some might argue that employers’ tendency to prefer applicants with MBAs is an example of “credentialism,” where the applicant with a degree is chosen above someone with equal or superior abilities who lacks the right “piece of paper.” In some respects, this is true, but it is difficult to fault a recruiter who makes this decision.

An MBA is a good way to document the knowledge, skills and abilities a candidate has, whether that candidate is applying to the accounting, marketing or HR department. It can be difficult to show such capabilities have been learned informally.

When people consider pursuing an MBA, many focus primarily on the specific knowledge, skills and abilities they could learn. In many instances, this knowledge will overlap with what may have been learned in an undergraduate program or gleaned from years of experience. However, it is important that HR professionals weigh other less tangible factors when deciding whether to pursue an MBA.

Many HR professionals have in-depth, specialized knowledge that is relevant to their firm and industry. However, an MBA can help put this knowledge into a broader context. A good MBA school will ensure graduates are familiar with a core curriculum that includes accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, operations management and human resources.

Generally, an MBA degree indicates to the recruiter that the applicant has transferable knowledge. For example, an applicant may be familiar with the accounting practices at her current firm, but she may not be able to apply this understanding in a different organization if she has not had formal instruction.

Being exposed to new ways of solving problems can help HR professionals understand the challenges their colleagues face in other areas of the firm. This added insight will help them communicate more persuasively. An HR manager who is implementing a corporate job classification system will need to understand how various jobs fit into the whole organization, and why different departments may value certain things more than others, such as efficiency versus transparency.

This can be especially important in organizations where the HR function is undervalued or poorly understood. Where HR managers are struggling to be heard, it helps to know how to frame an argument to gain the attention of someone with a different perspective. Some colleagues will find a cost-benefit analysis of recruitment strategies to be persuasive, whereas others will benefit from hearing about how job advertisements relate to the firm’s promotional and marketing activities.

An MBA is widely viewed as a necessary stepping stone on the way to the corner office. For this reason, many organizations will pay to further the education of workers with strong leadership potential.

However, an MBA is still valuable for HR professionals content to remain in middle management. Managers who are interested in expanding their skill sets can find programs designed specifically to meet their needs. Some schools offer part-time or distance education courses, which allow students to study while continuing to work. Other HR professionals can choose to focus on electives that are of interest, such as compensation and benefits, employment law or industrial relations.

Although most HR professionals interested in pursuing a graduate degree consider an MBA, other options are available. Some people choose to specialize further and pursue a research-based master’s degree, such as a master’s of science in management, or another discipline such as industrial-organizational psychology or engineering.

While an MBA exposes students to a broad knowledge base, more traditional master’s degrees require students to study a narrowly defined topic. This option can be an excellent chance to develop quantitative or qualitative analytical skills. Students in these programs will usually have the opportunity to study issues affecting their organization.

An MBA can also offer a fresh start to HR professionals who have been out of the workforce for a while. Parents who have quit their jobs to raise children sometimes have trouble finding new jobs that match their abilities and aspirations. A recent MBA allows them to demonstrate their skills and knowledge are up-to-date. The MBA experience can also expand a person’s social network, especially if she becomes active with alumni associations, mentorship programs and student organizations. People who are seeking an MBA to facilitate re-entry into the workforce should consider programs that offer co-op placements or career services supports.

As businesses face increasingly dynamic and complex environments, workers who can break out of their primary teams onto the broader stage of the organization’s affairs will be in demand.

HR has come to play an increasingly strategic role in firms. A broad understanding of organizations and the challenges they face is now a requirement for many HR professionals, whether or not they have an MBA.

Catherine Connely is an assistant professor of human resources and management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton.

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