Are there too many people in HR?

HR turning into a profession of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I know this is somewhat controversial, but I think we need to start questioning whether too many people are entering the human resources profession these days and if there are too many HR practitioners chasing too few opportunities.

While I’m not saying the answer to those questions is a definitive “yes,” some of the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen is pointing to the possibility of there being too many people in the HR profession — particularly at the more junior levels. However, it isn’t all doom and gloom either.

The good news

As mentioned, there really are some positive things to say about the HR profession.

First of all, in many organizations HR truly has a proverbial “seat at the table” alongside the senior leaders of other business functions. By and large, chief human resources officers (CHROs) in most larger organizations report directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) and have a great deal of authority and influence within their respective businesses.

Gone are the days when HR struggled to get the respect it deserved and the function was thought of as purely administrative in nature. Senior executives these days get the importance of people issues and generally don’t dismiss the concerns of HR as “touchy-feely fluff” or believe HR is needlessly concerned with policy or compliance issues.

I think we also need to banish a couple of misconceptions about human resources professionals — namely that the best and brightest don’t go into HR and that HR practitioners aren’t paid very well. As I mentioned a few times before, young people are now making a conscious decision to go into HR and are deciding to major in HR as part of their business degrees or even in graduate programs such as MBAs.

At least at the most senior levels, HR professionals can do quite well for themselves in terms of compensation. Some studies have found the average CHRO outearns the chief marketing officer (CMO) in many organizations and even the chief financial officer (CFO) in some cases. One recent study conducted by Ellie Filler and Dave Ulrich and reported on in the Harvard Business Review even found that of all C-suite executives, the CHRO has traits that are the most similar to CEOs.

The bad news

While the future has probably never been brighter for very senior HR professionals, the story is a little different for more junior practitioners. The job market for HR has become somewhat bifurcated into haves and have-nots in recent years. While things seem pretty good for CHROs, it has probably never been tougher to land an entry level job in HR — particularly as a recent graduate.

There are probably several factors behind this phenomenon, including the increasing emphasis on requiring experience in some of the more strategic aspects of the HR function even at the more junior levels and the fact many entry level HR roles have disappeared due to technology, outsourcing, cost cutting and line managers being asked to take on greater responsibility for personnel-related transactions.

If there are fewer entry level positions in HR, where are the future CHROs going to come from? My guess is senior level people will increasingly be parachuted into the role from other functions, with the result that many HR leaders may be missing some of the background theory and practical experience possessed by people who were promoted up from within the HR function. And many people who studied HR or previously worked in the function may have to look elsewhere to further their careers.

Even many intermediate and senior people in HR who find themselves out of work these days are having a really tough time landing another job. Although there seem to be a lot of HR postings nowadays, there seem to be many more people applying to those jobs. In many cases, employers are also being extremely picky in terms of who they hire for HR roles.

Several people who are familiar with the situation have admitted to me in recent years that the job market for HR professionals — particularly in a large market like Toronto — is saturated, and there are just too many people chasing too few jobs.

Because of these issues — and despite of some of the good news about the status of the HR function in many organizations — I probably wouldn’t recommend a career in HR to my daughter at this point.

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