While some advanced degrees and certifications can prepare you for a career in HR, these aren’t the only ways to get your foot in the door.
This is especially true for entry-level HR roles. While some prior experience or knowledge is always helpful, many necessary skills are quickly learned through on-the-job training and mentorship. Although some managerial roles favor those with relevant degrees and experience, many companies consider candidates with transferable solid skills or proven leadership success in other fields.
We’ve asked PeopleOps and business leaders to share advice on starting an HR career, starting at square one.
Entering the HR Workforce for the First Time
Breaking into the HR field as a recent high school or college graduate isn’t as tricky as it sounds.
At this point, you’ll target entry-level roles to establish your presence in HR. The only expectation for these roles is a willingness to learn. However, you can increase your chances of landing your first job if you have freelancing or internship experience to highlight in place of hands-on experience.
Carly Hill, Operations Manager at Virtual Holiday Party, suggests pursuing freelance work to gain some much-needed exposure in the field.
“One uncommon but relevant example is taking on freelance or consulting HR jobs as a way to get your foot in the door. By taking up these short-term gigs, you can demonstrate HR skills such as recruitment, strategic planning, and conflict resolution while building relationships with potential employers who may give you better opportunities in the future.”
Regarding a lack of HR-specific work experience, she added, “To achieve success in getting an HR job without experience, be sure to leverage your transferable project management and communication skills from any prior background you may have.”
Katharine Gallagher, Founder of Personal and Professional Growth, started her career by joining temporary staffing agencies.
“My advice would be to start by joining a temporary staffing agency. In fact, this is how I initially got into the industry, and it is a viable and common path.
Not all roles are advertised, and a job in an HR company may evolve from a short-term staffing need. It's a chance to gain practical experience, build a network, and transition into more permanent roles, so make sure you make your long-term goals known!”
Using Recruitment as A Foot in the Door
Kimberley Tyler-Smith, VP of Strategy and Growth, Resume Worded, recommends pursuing entry-level recruitment roles to break into HR.
“Consider aiming for an entry-level role, such as a recruiter. The current job market is hot for recruiters, making it a prime target. Take the initiative by reaching out directly to recruiting agencies posting positions. External recruiting agencies are often easier to break into than internal roles, so focus your efforts there. Connect with the management of local agencies on LinkedIn, presenting yourself as a proactive and dedicated candidate. Payroll positions could also serve as a stepping stone, offering connections and a potential pivot after gaining experience.”
Trevor Ewen, COO of QBench, also suggests using entry-level roles in recruitment as a gateway to HR.
“Recruiting is probably the easiest place to start. A number of organizations outsource the recruiting function. If you've paid a fee for success, then there is much less risk for the company hiring you. Recruiting is essentially a sales role but traffics in talent instead of direct business relationships. The best recruiters have great networks and know how to connect with people.”
Get Comfortable with HR Tech
Steven Athwal, Managing Director of The Big Phone Store, emphasizes the importance of embracing and understanding modern technology in HR.
“Pursuing a career in HR without prior experience requires embracing and utilizing technology.
Online platforms and courses can be instrumental in mastering HR fundamentals. It's important to highlight technological expertise on your resume, with a particular emphasis on skills such as familiarity with HR software and the fundamentals of data analytics. Consider volunteering for HR technology initiatives or providing examples of how you streamlined processes in prior positions. Attending events and networking within tech-driven HR communities can be very beneficial. A robust digital presence, especially on platforms like LinkedIn, can have significant impacts.”
“I really appreciate when candidates take the time to learn HR software like HRIS or ATS, even if they don't have experience. It shows they're serious about the job.
What impresses me more is when they go a step further, doing practice assignments to prove their skills. This effort, before even applying, speaks volumes about their dedication. These candidates stand out because they show up prepared, even without a formal HR background.”
Mark Varnas, Principal SQL Server DBA and Consultant at Red9, suggests learning about next-gen AI systems.
“These days, I'd suggest any aspiring HR professional learns as much about AI automated workflows as possible. HR is always busy with so many different little things, and has been historically as well. Now, however, AI allows for workflow automations that vastly improve potential, and allow HR professionals to focus on improvements.”
“In my experience running a business and developing tech products in the HR field, getting certifications for and learning how to use popular HR solutions is the number one way to get your foot in the door for an HR job without any experience.
As HR teams adopt more and more tech tools to aid their processes, experts qualified to use these systems are highly needed and wanted.”
Soft Skills Matter
Rob Reeves, CEO and President of Redfish Technology, values people skills over on-the-job experience.
“As a recruiter, I know that the best HR employees have one thing in common: people skills.
In fact, I often count personality higher than past experience when considering a candidate for an HR role. There is nothing worse than an unfriendly HR employee, and the effects can be widespread. No matter how strong your policies are, a standoffish HR worker means few employees will turn to them in times of need."
Pick Your Lane, Become an Expert
Agassiz Kong, who works in Executive Search for Oil and Energy at Kepler Search, touts the importance of specializing in a specific trade or industry.
“Transitioning into HR without prior experience can be challenging, but based on my journey, I have a tip that could help.
I started as a broker in the oil industry before becoming a headhunter. My best advice is to pinpoint the specific industry you want to serve in HR. Understanding the various roles and their responsibilities is crucial and can be gleaned by speaking to anyone who has been a hiring manager or HR professional in that sector. Connect with them on LinkedIn, or establish connections at industry conferences and HR trade shows.”
Campbell Tourgis, Executive VP and COO at Wainbee, advises jobseekers to immerse themselves in the company culture before reaching out.
“Showing that you understand and vibe with the company's culture makes you stand out. It signals that you're not just looking for any job but that you're genuinely interested in being part of their unique work environment. Even without experience, doing this can make a big difference in getting your foot in the door for that HR position.”
Landing an HR Job While You’re Still in School or Training
Jobseekers who are still in school or professional training have the added benefit of catering their learning toward HR. Any degrees or certifications you obtain will make a great addition to your resume, and you can present the experience that you do have in a way that speaks to HR recruiters.
Tasia Duske, CEO of Museum Hack, suggests strengthening your HR skills through education and internships within the field of HR.
“Getting a job in HR without any experience may seem daunting, but it is possible. Focusing on education and soft skills is crucial, as these will eventually help secure a job. Taking courses in HR topics like recruitment, employee relations, or compensation demonstrates interest in the field and shows prospective employers relevant knowledge.”
Michelle Delker, Founder of The William Stanley CFO Group, also believes that education, training, volunteerism, and networking can outweigh hands-on experience. She said:
“The initial step is to educate oneself about the fundamentals of HR. This could entail reading authoritative books and online articles or taking relevant courses available on platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning.
Industry-standard HR certifications like PHR (Professional in Human Resources) and SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) can significantly improve your employability by demonstrating commitment and foundational knowledge.”
Communication Skills Are Key
Alina Ali from Health Recruiters didn’t study HR, but believes her qualification is relevant nonetheless.
“Well, even without an HR degree or relevant experience, you can get a job in HR. I am telling this from my own experience. I have a degree in media and communication, which has nothing to do with HR. But to be in HR, one should have excellent communication skills. This is where my degree in communications helped me, as I utilized my transferable skills. I started my career in HR as an intern, and now I am working as an HR executive at Health Recruiters.”
Daniel Evans, the Director of Health Recruiters, agreed about the need for strong interpersonal skills and the importance of training and certification.
"To enter the field of HR, one must have strong interpersonal skills, empathy, and a deep understanding of organizational dynamics.
Aspiring professionals should prioritize building a solid foundation in HR principles through courses and certifications. Networking is essential to success in this field – attend industry events, connect with experienced HR professionals, and leverage online platforms to stay up-to-date with industry news and trends.”
Derek Bruce, HR & Operations Director at First Aid at Work Course, also touts the importance of communication.
“To maximize your effectiveness in the HR field, you need not only academic knowledge but specific skills as well: these include communication, decision-making, leadership, ethical management – vital for maintaining workplace integrity – and conflict resolution.
Further, negotiation abilities will cater to smooth business transactions while adaptability and problem-solving aptitudes can help navigate dynamic work environments effectively.”
A Qualification is Valuable
Daniel Wolken, HR Expert and Talent Acquisition Specialist at Daily Remote, emphasizes the importance of education and building experience.
“Getting into the human resources field takes both book learning and real-world practice.
First off, you need a good foundation in HR basics. That comes from taking HR classes or getting a degree in it. But classroom stuff alone isn’t enough — experience is key, too.
Internships are awesome for that. They let you see how HR works day to day at actual companies. Plus, interning is great for meeting people in the industry. It's also good to get certified in HR. The aPHR certificate shows you're knowledgeable, and employers like to see that.”
Justin Pincar, Founder and Managing Director of Achievable, touts the importance of becoming certified in HR.
“In my experience working with and helping aspiring HR pros land their first job, the number-one thing you can do to land your first job with little or no experience is to focus on finishing your degree, getting certified, and completing relevant courses for your ideal work position.
Although experience is an important prerequisite in the field of HR, working on your knowledge and improving your resume can only serve to your advantage, and this is something you should always focus on in the early stages.”
Leadership and People Skills are a Secret Weapon
Michael Power, CMO of DTF Transfers, believes the key to landing an HR job without experience is understanding how to predict employee needs.
“What startups are looking for is someone who can motivate and allay the concerns of employees in a meaningful, honest way.
To some extent, that kind of empathy can't be trained, but you can certainly hire someone with that characteristic. Of course, if you want long-term success, then you must learn on the job, seek out certifications, and constantly challenge yourself to become better. But to get started with that momentum, first show that you know how to speak to the average employee.”
James Smith, Founder of Travel-Lingual, also takes a people-centric approach.
“Remember to consider the importance of empathy. Human Resources is all about connecting with people on a human level. It's not about policies and procedures; it's about understanding and helping people.
Empathy is about developing your emotional intelligence, practicing active listening, and developing your ability to connect with others.”
Riva Jeane May Caburog, PR and Media Coordinator at Nadrich & Cohen (and also part of their HR team) describes how she made her way into HR without experience in the field.
“Despite a non-traditional path, I framed my online learning as a fundamental asset and demonstrated its practical application to HR challenges. Investing in digital education helped me become a dynamic candidate, where I proved that continuous online learning adds a unique layer to my skill set in the HR field.”
Transitioning into an HR Career from Other Fields
It can be straightforward to transition to HR from another field if you have a suitable skill set. This includes people skills, a basic understanding of HR protocol, and attention to detail.
The other necessary skills can be learned through orientation, training, and hands-on experience.
Identify, Develop, and Highlight Transferable Skills
Gianluca Ferruggia, Managing Director of Design Rush, highlights the importance of skills complementary to HR.
“We take a very hands-on approach to our HR processes and in fact, often hire team members into our HR department who may not have extensive traditional HR experience but possess the key skills and potential that we still value.
For example: understanding organizational psychology, championing diversity and inclusion, and managing remote work dynamics.”
Michael Morgan, Managing Director of Medallion Partners, stresses the importance of developing transferable skills before attempting to transition from another field.
“Develop a foundational working knowledge of HR principles. This can be done through your own self-directed study or even volunteering in roles that require people skills, like organizing community events or working with nonprofits. Informally meeting with current HR professionals can provide insights into the field and can often lead to unexpected opportunities.”
Kelli Anderson, Career Coach at Resume Seed, agrees that transferable skills are your doorway into a career in HR.
“One proactive thing you can do is gain transferable skills. Identify skills from your previous work or academic experiences that are relevant to HR. These might include communication, problem-solving, attention to detail, and organizational skills. Highlight these skills on your resume and in interviews.”
Robert Kaskel, Chief People Officer at Checkr, stresses the importance of having a great resume. Specifically, he said:
“Adapting your resume to highlight all your relevant experience is crucial. Even without direct work in an HR department, you may have engaged in HR-adjacent work or been involved in HR processes. For instance, if you've assisted with onboarding a teammate, include that experience on your resume.”
Elizabeth York, Trainer, Coach, and Learning & Development Consultant at BPTLAB, reinforces the importance of having a great resume.
“HR work is about the ability to communicate, assist, and guide people. It's also about high emotional intelligence and good conflict resolution skills, so it's worth considering how your personal qualities and any previous experiences highlight these attributes in you.”
Consider an HR Internship or Taking on HR-Related Tasks
Gillian Dewar, CFO at Crediful, suggests taking on an HR internship when transitioning from another field. However, you’ll need to have some sort of financial stability to make the step from a paid position into an unpaid internship.
“If you can afford to take a pay cut, taking on an internship can help you make moves more quickly. It can be an uphill battle trying to convince hiring managers to take a chance on you with no work experience, and an internship can fast-track you through that process with some instant and highly relevant experiences.
The one downside to internships is that they aren't an affordable option for many, as some are 100% unpaid and others pay relatively little. But if you can make the financial sacrifice for even three to six months, or take on a part-time internship that still allows you to work another role in the meanwhile, you can set your career on a much higher trajectory for success.”
Phil Strazzulla, Founder of SelectSoftware Reviews, recommends developing your skills in customer service before pursuing a role in HR.
“My advice is to look for opportunities to develop transferable skills that are valuable in HR. Roles in customer service, administrative work, or volunteering for HR-related tasks within your current job can help build skills like communication, organization, and problem-solving, which are highly sought after in HR roles.”
Dr. Kyle Elliott, Founder of CaffeinatedKyle, suggests highlighting the people skills you have gained in your prior roles.
“If you come from a customer service background and want to work in HR, for instance, you might wish to target employee-facing roles and focus on how you will be able to put your customer service skills to use. Similarly, if you currently work in marketing, you might consider going for a position in employer branding and highlighting how your experience will help you communicate and sell the employee experience.”
Tapping into Established Professional Networks
Many of the experts we’ve spoken with mentioned the importance of tapping into your professional network as often as possible. Not only can people in your network point you in the direction of new job openings and opportunities, but they might also be able to recommend certifications and training courses.
David Janovic, Founder and CEO of RJ Living, provides a reminder about the possibility of looking for internal roles at the company you’re already with.
“If you're already working, look for HR opportunities within your company.
While not every HR team will be willing to take a chance on someone with no experience, you've already established a reputation as a trustworthy, hardworking teammate in your current role. It's much easier to get approved for a transfer into your HR department if you're a valuable employee your leaders want to keep around longer.”
Priyanka Swamy, CEO of Perfect Locks, stresses that breaking into the field of HR requires some networking.
“Attend industry conferences, join online chat rooms, and contact HR experts on social media platforms like LinkedIn.”
Work with a Plan, Keep at It
Yuliia Katerniuk, Head of HR at Fourmeta, urges future HR professionals to utilize all available resources.
"In my opinion, to get into a company without experience and become an HR manager, it takes a lot of effort.
As a candidate without experience, you need to stand out in several ways. This includes being motivated, showing interest in the company you want to apply to, and having empathy towards people. Undoubtedly, good soft skills are crucial, and they should be noticeable even during the first interview.
It's also important to develop your own networking because valuable connections will definitely be useful in this field. Perhaps someone from your acquaintances can help you find a job.”
Stephan Baldwin, Founder and HR Manager at Assisted Living, reminds job seekers that some of their experiences could be earning credit toward an HR certification.
“If you’ve worked in an upper-level or managerial position, then you probably already have some human resource management experience.
Many people assume human resources deals only with creating company policies, benefits, and ensuring employees follow the rules. However, HR also has a lot to do with organizing schedules and ensuring that people’s workflows enable them to be productive. You’d have touched on this a bit as a team leader trying to manage projects and timelines.”
Managerial levels of HR almost always require prior experience and, in some cases, specific degrees or accreditations. However, recent high school and college graduates often fill entry-level HR roles.
These opportunities are great for those who are new to the workforce and for those who are transitioning from other fields, as they let them make their start in the field of HR while honing and refining their skills along the way.