The Gateway guide to human resources

The second part of a series looking at commercial graduate careers, this week - opportunities in HR

Jobs in HR can be challenging and business-focused whilst offering a career path to rival those of the more well-known graduate roles in areas such as finance, accountancy and law. If you start a career in this area, chances are you'll find yourself doing work that is critical to your company's short and long-term success.

Those who read the second issue of The Gateway of last term may have seen the interview with Annabelle Biddle, head of HR for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Over the past year she had been responsible for managing of the integration in the UK that resulted from the merger of two huge international banks. This would have involved avoiding any unnecessary duplication of teams and jobs, whilst working to make as few redundancies as possible. She also would have been part of a senior team overseeing the internal restructuring required to manage the increased levels of work that the fused bank would be covering. Staff in HR roles across the globe, at companies big and small, are doing similar work - not only helping businesses to emerge from the recession, but providing a platform and infrastructure from which to build as the world economy recovers.

The duties of the HR team extend beyond staffing issues. They are also responsible for: initiating training programmes for graduates and directors alike, ensuring that the top staff members throughout the firm get promoted and maintaining an enjoyable working environment which people don't want to leave. Crucially, they also look after remuneration (not just basic salary but bonuses, pensions and equity options). It's the role of the HR department to ensure that the firm's organisational structure is both streamlined and yet has the capacity to cope with increased workload as the company grows. Those who work in HR also need to be aware of developments in legislation and social trends that affect their firm's employees; recent examples include the development of better business communications technology, which allows people to work from home more effectively, and alterations in minimum wage legislation, which has an impact on the finances of the firm and relationships with staffing contractors:

Joining a large company's HR graduate scheme

Some companies offer formal schemes in HR. Centrica and Lloyds TSB are two examples of big companies still accepting applications for their 2010 HR programmes. These are typically structured as rotation schemes, which last between 18 months and 2 years and are designed around projects involving the full range of HR work, including recruitment, remuneration, leadership development and company organisation. Importantly, these schemes encourage the participants to get involved in both the reactive day-to-day problem solving and the wider strategic projects related to the company's staffing, pay and structure. Many companies will also pay for their HR graduates to obtain formal qualifications to help them understand the people management and psychological techniques employed by senior HR professionals.

Joining a smaller company in a dedicated Human Resources role

Here you would start as the most junior member of a small team, helping out in all aspects and working your way up in the firm. These roles can be hard to come by but are occasionally advertised on university careers websites or graduate job boards such as www.milkround.com. Be aware that small HR teams can become overburdened with helping colleagues with personnel issues on a day-to-day basis, with senior management left to plan company growth, hiring and remuneration packages. HR roles in smaller companies are therefore often best suited to those who prefer the helping, fixing, reactive nature of the job, as opposed to people more interested in long-term planning and development of HR strategies.

Working for a specialist consultancy

Joining a consultancy offers the chance to get involved purely in longer-term projects without having to worry about the day-to-day problems which HR professionals in companies face. Whilst some big firms advise on issues across the full range of HR work, there are also a number of boutiques which concentrate on individual areas, such as remuneration, or boosting leadership levels at their clients' organisations. The work-life balance at consultancies can be tough, but this is compensated by the chance to earn a high salary. The exposure to a variety of HR problems faced by clients in different sectors can lead to a greater understanding of both the theory and practice of Human Resources strategies than might be obtained whilst working within a single firm.

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