How to Become a Human Resource Specialist with a Human Resource Management Degree

If employees represent the heart of a business or organization, a human resource specialist serves as its heartbeat. As these professionals are frequently the ones charged with recruiting, interviewing and are involved in the training and development of new and long-tenured employees, they help a business come to life, ensuring each department has the right people. Some might rightly argue that human resource specialists help employers operate at full capacity.

While you may know that these professionals play a highly important role, you may not know how to become a human resource specialist yourself. Learn about this and the many other employment opportunities available to you with a bachelor’s degree in human resource management. The University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business’ online Bachelor of Science program has helped students like you obtain the qualifications that set them up for success, including preparation for the Society for Human Resource Management certification.

What will you do as a human resource specialist?

Before elaborating on the specifics of how to become a human resource specialist, it’s important to understand the job descriptions that come with this occupation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor  Statistics, these HR professionals are responsible for the recruitment, screening, and interview scheduling of individuals seeking employment. While it’s common for them to be employed by organizations large enough to have HR departments — regardless of the industry — HR specialists often work for companies whose primary service is employee placement. Approximately 15% of human resource specialists work on behalf of employment servicing organizations, based upon BLS data.

Here are a few other duties that traditionally fall under human resource specialists’ purview:

  • Maintain contact with upper management to determine what qualifications they want from job applicants.
  • Produce job descriptions that lay out what the qualifications and responsibilities are for new or open positions.
  • Maintain employment documents (i.e., employment identification numbers, mailing addresses, contact information, etc.) for record-keeping purposes.
  • Reach out to applicants to schedule interviews or clarify any issues on submitted resumes and cover letters.
  • Perform initial screening with job applicants before referring them to the people making the hiring decisions.
  • Ensure job seekers have the proper work experience for non-entry-level positions.
  • Email or call references applicants identify on their resumes to learn more about individuals being considered.

As previously noted, human resources and recruitment specialists are typically not the ones who determine who will fill open roles, but their initial work and due diligence can help ensure the right person gets the job. Many organizations can empathize with hiring someone who turns out to be a mistake. As a recent survey from Robert Half revealed, 75% of senior managers say they’ve made at least one bad hire in the past. Of the HR managers who admitted as much, close to two-thirds said the adverse effects of doing so are worse in a post-COVID environment than they were prior to the pandemic.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, noted that the changes brought on by the coronavirus have made certain hiring decisions more consequential.

“When faced with so many changes, there can be more room for error and, unfortunately, a bad hiring decision can have a ripple effect throughout the organization,” McDonald cautioned.

The direct and indirect consequences can be significant, from lost productivity to decreased staff morale and added stress. McDonald said employers can reduce the risk of making a bad hiring decision by performing a more thorough initial assessment and evaluation process.

Human resource specialists serve as key players in this hiring process, but their job entails so much more. They’re also involved in ensuring that work arrangements are well suited for all parties involved, meaning workers as well as employers. For example, during the pandemic, offices closed for months at a time, forcing employees to work 100% remotely.

While the restrictions associated with COVID-19 are for the most part no longer in place — at least not in the U.S. — employers anticipate that many of the work environment adjustments brought about by the pandemic will stick around for the foreseeable future. As a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and Oxford Economics showed, 64% of employers expect greater flexibility in company policies with regard to remote work. Nearly 40% said they expected greater demand among current and prospective hires for remote work as an ongoing job perk.

How do you start a career as a human resource specialist?

Just as many jobs require certain qualifications, the same goes for how to become a human resource specialist. Generally speaking, they need a bachelor’s degree in human resources or a similar field, such as communications, library science, or business, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Professional writing, industrial relations, psychology, or business management are also among the courses that can be helpful to aspiring human resource specialists. The skill sets and efficiencies learned in accounting can also come in handy, as HR specialists frequently also perform certain payroll functions involving compensation and benefits. However, human resource generalists are typically the ones whose assignments include payroll scheduling and processing, according to the BLS.

Given the importance businesses place on finding and hiring the best possible employees for new and open jobs, some may prefer HR specialists who have more than a bachelor’s degree, whether that’s a graduate degree in a related field or having completed various relevant certification programs. SHRM offers such programs. These courses are designed to reinforce the training that HR professionals acquired after obtaining their undergraduate degree and to supply them with additional skills. These capabilities can set HR professionals apart from other applicants whose experience may not be as extensive. The Collat School of Business online program can provide students with the knowledge, preparation and skill sets that can ultimately lead to this distinction.

Successful completion of the Society for Human Resource Management’s certification program results in the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) credential. According to SHRM’s website, there are a number of different ways to attain this status, including self-study or through instructor-led learning at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country. After completing the required coursework, the test is 160 questions. The test is timed, and students have four hours to finish. A passing score is any outcome that results in 200 points or higher. Again, this is something that is discussed more in depth within the bachelor’s degree program at the Collat School of Business.

Continuing education is a part of the deal with a SHRM-CP credential, because human resources is a dynamic industry. SHRM requires SHRM-CPs to recertify once every three years. This can be done by retaking the exam or accruing enough Professional Development Credits, which come through attending certain classes, completing tasks, workshop participation, and watching SHRM-produced webcasts. SHRM-CPs must earn 60 or more to avoid retaking the exam within the three-year window, which starts with their date of certification.

As for eligibility in the program, it depends on where applicants are in their undergraduate education. As noted at the Society for Human Resource Management’s website, those who have less than a bachelor’s degree — meaning an associate degree, high school diploma, or some college — must have three years of experience working in a human resources-related field or role. Those with a bachelor’s degree only need one year in an HR role, but their major must be in human resources or something similar to it (e.g., communications, business management, accounting, etc.).

There are many advantages to the online Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management program — from course completion flexibility to its award-winning faculty — but one of the biggest is the curriculum. From Fundamentals of Financial Management to Principles of Accounting to Business Communications and Operations Management, the classes are designed to give students a well-rounded understanding of HR functions and implementing modern human resource management practices. And because it’s aligned with the SHRM curriculum guidelines, a degree from the Collat School of Business allows students to seamlessly transition to the SHRM-CP certification program. SHRM-CP is a highly respected distinction that demonstrates excellence and can lead to fulfilling opportunities in human resources and beyond.

How much do human resource specialists typically earn?

Given the variety of responsibilities that human resource specialists have, this occupation can be demanding, but it’s also rewarding from a compensation perspective. Per the most recent figures available from the , the median annual wage for human resource specialists in 2020 was just shy of $63,500. The top 10% made approximately $109,400, while the bottom 10% earned $37,710.

In addition to level of experience and educational attainment, the industries that human resource specialists work in can influence their income. The highest-paid HR professionals are in professional, scientific, and technical services. Their median annual wage in May 2020 was $71,960. Human resource specialists in the public sector ($70,410) and manufacturing ($66,980) also typically earn more than the national median annual wage for this occupation.

Yet another variable in human resource specialists’ salary levels is where they are located. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the states with the highest populations are also those where HR professionals are making the most money. The annual median wage in California is $79,590, greater than any other state. New York, Texas, Florida, and Ohio comprise the top five states where human resource specialists’ salaries are largest.

While business owners will ultimately determine policies governing where their employees can get work done based on their organizations’ unique needs, experts believe remote work will become more of the norm. Human resource specialists are frequently involved in communicating this option to job seekers, going over the requirements to be able to work from home and ensuring workers have what they need to make the transition more seamless.

Success in this regard can be significant, particularly when it comes to new hires. According to a study conducted by the Aberdeen Group, companies that can effectively onboard recently hired employees to remote work average a 52% increase in employee retention rates.

This is another reason why continuing education is valuable to SHRM-CPs. They can learn new skills, technologies, and processes that can provide assistance with the highly dynamic nature of the modern workplace.

How long does it take to become a human resource specialist?

The answer to this question hinges on experience and education. Bachelor’s degree programs at most colleges and universities are four years, including for human resources-related majors and those offered through the UAB Collat School of Business. The curriculum in the Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management program is a combination of marketing, business, and general education courses that add up to 120 semester credit hours. This means that full-time students can complete the required coursework in as little as four years. Yet because all of the classes are available online, students can go through the program at their own pace. The program was designed for full-time students and working professionals alike.

For those whose aim is SHRM Certified Professional licensure, the pathway may be longer, depending on whether they already have a bachelor’s degree or on-the-job, human resources-related work experience. Because the SHRM-CP program can also be completed online, and attaining the credential is dependent on passing the exam, the timeline can vary widely. Furthermore, while the test can be retaken, passing on the first try is not easy. For the most recent exam period, the national SHRM-CP pass rate was 67%, virtually unchanged from 2020.

Is pursuing certification worth the effort?

Given that people can become human resource specialists with a bachelor’s degree alone, some may question if certification is worth the time and money (the standard exam fee is $375 for SHRM members, $475 for non-members). While this is a personal decision, the data suggests that these efforts yield results.

One of the ways it pays off is by enabling HR professionals to more effectively compete with others who may be interested in a job opening. Competition in the human resources profession can be fierce, as the field is projected to grow by as much as 7% between 2019 and 2029, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The level of expertise can be a key difference-maker. More than one-third of HR professionals have at least one certification, based on estimates from the Society for Human Resource Management. And the higher up the chain of HR management people are, the more likely it is that they have one or more certifications. For example, at a national level, over half (51.5%) of human resource vice presidents are certified, as are nearly 56% of chief human resource officers.

If you intend to ascend the ladder of human resource management, a SHRM-CP may be able to expedite this process by establishing your industry bona fides and overall credentials. With UAB as your support system, certification can be easier to achieve because you’ll know what to expect and how to prepare.

Another rationale for pursuing licensure after getting your Bachelor of Science is earnings potential. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s most recent report that chronicles the market value of HR certifications, those with any HR certification typically see a nearly 32% increase in their salary compared to those who don’t have one.

Certification doesn’t stop at SHRM-CP, either. Here are a few additional credentials that are awarded by other groups similar to SHRM, such as the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC) and the HR Certification Institute (HRCI):

  • Senior Professional in Human Resources (awarded by the HRCI)
  • Certified Compensation Professional (awarded by the World at Work)
  • Global Professional in Human Resources (awarded by the HRCI)
  • Certified Professional Coach (awarded by the IPEC)

The HRCI also confers certifications to HR professionals who live in California. It’s called the California Senior Professional in Human Resources, or SPHR-CA. As referenced earlier, California is a major market for HR managers, and the SPHR-CA may be able to give job seekers an advantage if employers are looking for the most qualified people to be a part of their team.

Pay raises and promotions aren’t mutually dependent — you can have one without the other. But increasing the chances of reaching a higher level of HR management is an additional incentive to go for HR certification. In the aforementioned market report conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, there’s a positive correlation with certification and getting a promotion. For example, among human resource assistants in the study, around 68% say they were promoted within the previous five years, despite not being certified. But among those with at least one, more than 82% were promoted. The same was true for human resource administrators. Over 70% with one or more certifications were promoted within five years, compared to roughly 63% who got promoted but were not certified.

From enhancing your pay to increasing your odds of landing a desirable HR management position, there is great value in HR certification. Given the Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management curriculum aligns with that of the Society for Human Resource Management, UAB’s program can give you the preparation you need to excel in your continuing education efforts.

Hiring is a main function of human resource specialists, but to do that, you need to be hired first. The Collat School of Business online HR degree can give you the skill sets and proficiencies to achieve at the highest levels in the HR world and beyond. For more information on how to apply and to find answers to frequently asked questions, please visit the program page.


Recommended Reading

What Can You Do with a Human Resources Degree? Career Paths and Job Outlook

How to Become an HR Training and Development Manager



BLS, Human Resources Specialists

SHRM, Market Value of HR Certifications for HR Professionals

SHRM, Exam Statistics

Aberdeen, Perfecting the Onboarding Funnel

Robert Half, 38% of Workers Say Pandemic Contributed to a Career Setback, Survey Finds

SHRM, Oxford Economics, The Future of Work Arrives Early: How HR Leaders Are Leveraging the Lessons of Disruption

Statista, Resident Population of the U.S. in 2020, by State

SHRM, SHRM Certification