Human resources: on course to become a better people person

A specialist degree can help in the high-powered world of HR, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago, a little seen department known as "personnel" managed payroll, hirings and firings and kept out of the way of serious business, such as operations and finance. Today, that department, renamed human resources (HR) and occupying far more floor space, is an increasingly important part of the corporate world, with its head often sitting on the board of directors and its managers qualified professionals in their own right.

One measure of the growing standing of the HR professional is the proliferation of specialist qualifications to equip practitioners with the right skills and knowledge base. The key is to get a qualification accredited by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, which, according to Dr Ben Lupton, programme director on the MA in human resource Management at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, is becoming standard currency.

"It's getting more and more difficult to progress without a professional qualification," says Lupton. "There's a recognition that good HR practices make a significant difference to an organisation's success and that to deliver that you need capable and professional people."

This was certainly the experience of Claire Roberts, 31, a student on Lupton's course at MMUBS, which comes with graduate membership of the CIPD.

"I know I would struggle to get a job in HR without this," says Roberts, who is making a complete career change after teaching overseas. "Before I signed up for the course, I was being put forward for admin-type positions because I didn't have the right CV. I know, from being in touch with recruitment agencies, that I'm much more employable now, especially as my dissertation is on talent management, which is one of the hot topics in HR."

These courses tend to attract both those new to the profession and seasoned practitioners looking to update their skill set and move to the next level. Programmes usually cover the basics of HRM, such as resourcing, rewards and development, and equip students with the skills to handle less pleasant aspects of the job, such as employment tribunals and redundancies.

It's usual for students to undertake a work placement, usually eight to 10 weeks in duration, and there are often options to specialise. The University of Strathclyde Business School's MSc in HRM offers electives in employment law or international HRM, which is a growing area as emerging economies wake up to the power of effective human resource management. Most programmes have an internationally diverse student body, reflecting the growing importance of human resources around the world and the allure of a CIPD-accredited qualification.

Lancaster University Management School offers an MA in human resource development and consulting, which aims to help students work as change agents within organisations.

"The consulting element is key for this programme," says Dr Kiran Trehan, the course director. "We are looking at the concept of consultancy as an internal manager having to manage change or people processes within an organization, which is a critical part of the HR leadership role."

This can also give students the skills to step out on their own. "I'd never considered the possibility of being self-employed before but I'm quickly changing my mind," says Caroline Gee, 36, a student on the LUMS course. "It's a very exciting time."

Gee signed up for the MA after receiving what she calls a "comfortable" redundancy package from her previous role in the construction industry.

"I'd felt that 13 years in the same sector was narrowing my choices and HR was an area I wanted to move into because I've always been interested in helping people develop and grow," she says. "I'm really enjoying it. It's everything I hoped it would be."