‘You’re doing what?’

As HR profession expands, so do HR-related roles

From executive compensation to organizational effectiveness to employment standards, HR is a vast, expanding field with plenty to offer.

But the current job market is challenging as the economy slowly recovers — so some HR professionals are stepping beyond the traditional roles of HR to test other waters related to their interests.

“You might start out in HR but you could end up in operations, counselling, God knows what, because the knowledge and skills you acquire in HR, you can utilize in any kind of position,” says Sarah Gayer, owner of HR consulting firm Sare and Associates in Toronto.

Gayer also runs a course for the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Ontario on how to become a successful HR consultant. The course has been popular though she makes a point to stress consulting is not a 9-to-5 job but one with 24-7 demands.

“(You) have to do everything — the marketing, branding, website, networking, selling, putting the content together, writing reports, whatever,” she says.

Consulting a popular route

Nevertheless, HR consulting is all the rage these days.

“I’ve just seen so many people get into consulting over the past year,” says Helen Luketic, manager of HR metrics and research at the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association (BC HRMA) in Vancouver. “They’ve seen the worst in organizations and senior leadership during the last while, during the tough times, and it’s just easier to work on their own.”

Since many companies cut jobs during the recession and senior roles were eliminated, the consulting route is an appealing option, says Janet Chappell, national practice leader for HR at David Aplin Recruiting in Mississauga, Ont.

“(HR professionals are) doing it to fill the gap because they don’t want to take a role that’s too junior for them and then be a flight risk,” she says.

The biggest areas for consulting include training, development, project management and organizational effectiveness, says Chappell.

“You’re not seeing as many roles where they’re just going in to set up HR,” she says.

Also popular is coaching, as an extension of consulting, says Nathalie Francisci, assistant editor at HRjob.ca and an executive vice-president at Mandrake Group in Montreal. However, coaching and mentorship are a real specialty, she says, and not everyone is cut out to take on that role.

There are two types of HR people, says Francisci. There are those who stay in that domain for their entire career and those with more of a business sense or different type of expertise, such as operations, who start in HR and are involved in a project or implementation. Those people, “with fire in their belly,” may switch to operations or the executive level, she says.

One HR pro’s path in, and out, of traditional HR

Despite holding two law degrees, Brian Kreissl decided to pursue an HR career years ago. He started out as a recruiter, first for an agency, then in-house at a large financial institution. He moved on to generalist-type roles but decided to focus on specialties such as compensation and technology. Kreissl then became an HR program manager at a bank where he worked with developers, testers, project managers and business analysts.

More recently, Kreissl took a non-traditional role when he joined Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business (and publisher of Canadian HR Reporter), as a product development manager, responsible for HR products and services. He is now managing editor of Consult Carswell.

“It (allows) me to combine both my legal and HR knowledge, as well as my love of writing, my education in general business and my background on technology projects,” he says. “I feel more like I’m working in HR now than I ever did. As well as managing a team of product writers, I’m drafting employment policies, writing books, articles and online content related to HR, dealing with employee relations-type inquiries, creating HR PowerPoint presentations and researching employment law.”

Hot topics

A lot of people in HR are specializing in areas they’ve learned on the job, such as labour relations, social media, leadership development, technology, business analysis or executive coaching, says Luketic. HR and sustainability are also being put together, she says.

Newer job titles include “HR specialist, respectful workplace” and there is a greater frequency of titles around workforce planning, metrics, analytics and HR systems, says Luketic. The word “HR” in job titles is often replaced with “people” or “people services” while recruitment positions are listed as “talent attraction specialists” or “talent acquisition specialists.”

Health and safety is also a big one, with provincial governments cracking down, and compensation because employers are having a hard time figuring out how to pay people, says Gayer. “They tie pay to motivation and not everybody’s motivated by money.”

Business ethics and CSR are also prevalent, she says. While normally a company turns to a lawyer for expertise in this area, HR can make sure there are codes of conduct, confidentially agreements and policies in place that speak to inappropriate behaviour. Project management is another logical extension for HR professionals, as much of what they do is project-based, says Gayer.

There’s also a greater focus on diversity as that becomes a big buzzword with a lot of companies, says Chappell, who has also seen some roles where HR is more involved with mergers and acquisitions work.

But along with that focus on specialization comes a need for the basics, for expert HR generalists, says Francisci. It’s almost a new specialty, she says, to be well-versed in the basics.

Demand is strong for HR jobs but it depends on the type of job, says Jason Stevens, Toronto-based director of operations for Canada at Beyond.com (which runs HRjobs.ca). Higher-level jobs are not that much in demand because employers are trying to squeeze more out of their lower-level workers. Sixty-five per cent of HR jobs posted this year have been core HR functions, such as recruitment, staffing, administration, and six per cent were at the director level and above, he says.

“Companies are trying to tighten the workforce, get more from existing resources,” says Stevens.

Some of the more unusual HR-related jobs appearing on job sites include research assistant, business development, sales or promotions, career employment counsellor, elearning co-ordinator and people and organizational capability consultant, according to Beyond.com.

But with the tougher economy, now is not a great time to be creative with the HR field, says Chappell.

“I would say a lot of the roles we’re getting are more tactical, because they’re so lean. So it’s the strategy roles that are fewer and far between right now. What I envision though, once companies start to feel pain and they’re losing talent, that’s when these roles are going to come back.”

And for the most part, people in HR remain in HR, says Chappell.

“They tend to stay in it. Very few people would come to me and say, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough of HR.’ It is a field that is embraced — people are passionate about it.”

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