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School Daze

Students don't understand the basics about HR. Universities aren't teaching HR properly. Companies are underwhelmed with talent coming out of college. Is there any hope?

Monday, March 1, 2010
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While studying for his master's degree in human resources at the University of South Carolina, Michael Einstein has gotten his share of guff from the MBA students on campus. They call HR the "fuzzy, feel-good-about-yourself career," says Einstein. They say HR students are studying the soft side of business while the MBA students will drive real profits someday.

"They feel like our classes aren't as challenging as theirs and that we're not as talented as they are and that's why we're in [the HR] program," he says.

A few years back, Einstein might have believed those types of falsehoods too. After graduating from Cedarville University with a degree in philosophy, Einstein didn't really know much about HR and the role it plays in business.

But after working for a while as a bartender and server at Max & Erma's in Columbus, Ohio, a franchise of the casual-dining restaurant chain, the corporate office tapped him to help out in its opening of new locations in Ohio, South Carolina and Indiana. His job: train the managers at the new locations.

He was immediately attracted to motivating employees and working on their development. Thinking about his own development, he wondered if there was a career track in which he could do that kind of work full time.

"I didn't even know anything about HR or that I was involved in an HR project," he says. But the experience prompted him to research the field online and eventually seek the advice of a high-ranking HR executive at Max & Erma's.

It all led to Einstein finding his calling.

"I really liked the diversity in human resources -- the fact that you can do talent management, training and development, or organizational effectiveness," he says. "It seemed like the sky was the limit and, by choosing HR, I could find something I really liked; and if I didn't, I could move to another aspect of HR."

Armed with this new knowledge, Einstein enrolled at South Carolina for a master's in HR, and hopes to earn a management position with a company after graduation.

But his story is pretty unlikely.

Recruiters and experts say it's tough to find students like Einstein, who understand the importance of HR in business -- and in turn, many promising students bypass a career in HR and go into something more popular such as finance, marketing or law.

So how can universities -- and the companies that recruit their students -- entice the best and brightest students to choose a career in HR? And how can they make sure students are learning the right things?

Experts say both entities need to increase students' exposure to the profession when they start as undergraduates, as well as make HR classes requirements -- not electives -- in business programs. They should also host HR leaders for campus visits, highlight career opportunities in the field and draw more attention to internships.

Proper Marketing

Luring students to HR starts with undergraduate business schools, but right now, they don't seem to be presenting the profession as if it's as important as other business disciplines. In turn, just 61 percent of undergraduate business schools offer at least one HR class as a requirement, according to the 2010 State of HR Education Study by the Society for Human Resource Management -- and experts say that's far too low.

In many cases, it's just relegated to an elective, which is a big mistake, says John W. Boudreau, professor and research director at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"I think having [a class] required in a curriculum sends a signal to students that it's something the business school considers important enough that you shouldn't leave without it," he says.

If the class sparks students' interests, it could serve as a springboard for them to seek out an HR internship or possibly make it their career choice. It could also show students who plan to go into other facets of business the value of a well-structured HR program.

"When I encounter [my former students] later in their career," says Boudreau, "they often say . . . 'I would have spent more time in those HR classes to augment the time I was spending in those traditional functional areas.' "

SHRM, based in Alexandria, Va., reports that the teaching of HR has historically been inconsistent from school to school. Employers, it says, believe those institutions haven't been covering all the topics necessary to produce successful HR professionals because classes haven't been showing the connection between HR and business.

"Students graduating with HR degrees were not coming into the workplace as novice HR professionals, possessing the skills and knowledge they needed to be contributing members of the business from day one," says Nancy Woolever, director of academic initiatives at SHRM.

In 2006, SHRM began fighting back, introducing its own curriculum. It started providing teaching materials, broadening its relationships with schools and their faculties, and working to provide more internships for students. As of this year, more than 160 schools have adopted its program. On the company side, Boudreau says they should consider sending HR executives to visit campuses and talk to business students about the value of the profession, which he says has been successful at USC.

"My students are not only very grateful to have the chance to see these leaders in action but also, in some ways, are kind of surprised to learn that very savvy, very smart, very strategic-thinking executives exist in HR and are making very strategic differences in their organizations," he says.

Over the long term, companies can attract more students to HR by weighing their decisions about people as highly as they do their decisions about money, technology or other factors, something that isn't happening enough these days, says Boudreau.

"As we see organizations begin to hold leaders accountable for the quality of their [people] decisions, I think that's when there'll be additional impetus for students to say, 'OK, now I see that this is an important discipline . . . and I'm beginning to understand how my career in this area is going to make a big difference in organizations."

That's the trickle-down theory.

But that sentiment, Boudreau says, can also trickle up from the students fresh out of business schools who've just learned how important it is for companies to have a progressive and well-developed HR department, and they'll be sure to make that a priority as they develop into business leaders.

Brian Klaas, professor of management and chair of the management department at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, says TV and movies can make careers like law seem extremely interesting, while creating negative stereotypes about HR. Constant headlines about layoffs don't help either.

"It's important to break stereotypes about HR early on, even in undergraduate classes. I think they may think, 'If I go into HR, then I'm the Toby character on The Office' -- as opposed to saying, 'Oh I'm the person who saves $32 million by being more effective at how we negotiate a contract,' " says Klaas.

Upon entering school, many students simply don't know what an HR person does from day to day, and although there are plenty of students who are "incredibly well-suited" for a career in HR, they simply don't know it's an option.

"Somebody who's not in HR or somebody who's not a veteran of a major organization may have a harder time understanding what [HR professionals do] and how studying those issues are going to help [them] land a position in the marketplace," Klaas says.

Universities can also open some eyes by discussing the different career tracks a student can take if he or she chooses to work in HR at a large company.

"There're opportunities within these companies that I don't think your average undergraduate is aware of," says Klaas, noting that they also might not know that "the pay is quite good."

If presented to students the right way, it could make all the difference.

"When they're thinking about law school they will also think about a graduate degree in HR, and they won't just pursue the common choice. They've seen law on TV . . . it's easy to fall into that. There are a lot of HR people [who have the same skills] as those considering law."

Chris Collins, associate professor and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at the ILR School at Cornell University, says it's all about internships, since real-world experiences often lead people toward picking their careers.

"They can get some insight into what a job in that area might be," he says. "Then they might say, 'Wow, this is really exciting. I never knew it could be like this.' "

Internships could also make up for skills gaps that students may have when they hit the workforce. HR students are often "too academic" and "don't see the connection to how this particular company is driving business strategy," says Collins.

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Dealing with the Disconnect

Leaders at Arrow Electronics, a Melville, N.Y.-based provider of commercial electronics, have been underwhelmed with the skills and knowledge of the HR students they've recruited over the years. "I think there's a disconnect between what they're learning and what the realities are," says John McMahon, Arrow's senior vice president of human resources.

He doesn't think schools are conveying that HR practitioners need to have a business mind-set -- something crucial to a progressive HR function.

"Are you just the 'HR guy or gal' or are you a business person who happens to work in HR by choice? There's a big difference. I think that's the hypothesis that has to be built at the university level." If they want to succeed, students had better have their business skills intact, he says. "You better have strong business acumen. You better have influencing skills, consultative skills. You need to be a subject-matter expert."

Sure, Arrow has been able to train young people -- some of whom have blossomed into great young HR professionals -- but McMahon says nothing beats talking to students directly. "If you have your act down pat and you're clear about what your value proposition is for your HR team and your organization, you should be out there evangelizing your company," says McMahon.

When speaking to HR students, he and his team tell them a company can have the best strategy, the best machinery and the best tools, but having the wrong people means you won't be successful. However, they say, if HR helps instill the right workforce, it can create a competitive advantage that helps the company's bottom line.

McMahon acknowledges that "we need to do more [speaking with students], myself included." He plans to partner with universities in the near future so he can share his opinions about what skills students need before they enter the workforce.

"I say, 'I'd like to come in and chat with you. I'd like to understand what you're teaching in your curriculum and I'd like to give you some input -- because we do recruit from your school. I'd like to share my vision of what HR should be,' " he says.

McMahon says he hasn't done that yet, but says he plans to start this year by reaching out to two schools that the company already has some relationships with -- the University of Colorado and Hofstra University.

Mirian Graddick-Weir, executive vice president of human resources at Merck, says HR at the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company needs to do a better job of marketing its brand. Many students "still think of it as personnel," rather than a function that can be "extraordinarily strategic."

Also, she says, many students choose to get an MBA or a law degree because they think that'll help them get a good job -- and they don't realize that a master's in HR can be just as promising.

"Not only do we have to change their mind-sets around what people do in HR and the bottom-line impact they have; they also have to be convinced that, when they get a degree . . . there are job opportunities out there."

So to change their minds, Graddick-Weir also goes out and talks to students.

"There's no substitute for those of us who are in the field actually spending time with students, giving them what I would call a realistic preview of what we do every day," she says.

That gives her a chance to dispel myths that an HR executive is just a glorified "people person," and show them the bottom-line impact the profession can have on a firm.

While Graddick-Weir welcomes the opportunity to speak to students, she notes that "there's only so much you can do in the classroom." That's why she tells students that they should do internships, which, at Merck, is a comprehensive initiative in which students work on projects and also have forums with leaders in all facets of HR, from compensation to benefits to recruiting.

She thinks it's especially important to expose interns to line leaders.

"To have a line leader talk about an initiative they had going on in their business and how crucial HR was in the success of that project, that's when I think they realize the true impact they can have in this profession," she says.

See also:

Scoring with a Career in HR

Top Entry-Level Major

Putting Feet on the Ground

Hitting the Books

Why Non-HR Students Tend to Avoid HR Careers

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