Degrees of HR mediocrity

HRdegreeWhat I love about social media are the discussions and debates that spring up out of nowhere. Last week I read a blog written by a young HR person just starting out his/her career. The blog, written by “HR Minion” on the HRINZ blogsite described their first few weeks at work and how they went about their first project. However, what caught my eye was the following:
“In the four years at university and especially the 10 HR related papers in my last two and a half years, they never once covered how to be a HR Advisor. I understand that university is to prepare you for the real world, but at this point I didn’t feel like I was prepared to actually deliver in an HR role. Isn’t that the reason I paid $27,000+ for a degree in HR and Strategic Management?

I thrive on having to learn and in putting in more effort than I normally would in order to learn. But this may not be the case for everyone. I enjoyed university and it taught me how to meet deadlines, how to work in groups and how to research. But it didn’t teach me what it took to be good at practicing HR. Is this something that I should expect from University? Isn’t this why we are paying a top notch institution to teach us the practicalities of HR? I’m not sure. What are your thoughts?”

This is a bit of a hobby horse for me so I tweeted saying “a very telling comment about uni not preparing someone to be an HR Advisor. Why not?” Amanda Sterling (@Sterling_Amanda) agreed with the point before we got a contrasting view from Sarah Miller (@Whippasnappahr) who said that it wasn’t the job of universities to teach work skills and that they should be places to learn academic theory. She has since written a great blog piece on the topic which should be read alongside this post.

Disappointingly, there has been a deafening silence from HRINZ on this even though they were included in the discussion. Isn’t this an area our professional institute should be leading the way on? Or perhaps they just don’t monitor their Twitter account very closely? Either way, the student learning section of their website doesn’t appear to have been updated for three years but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect the work they are doing in the university sector. I would love to hear what their view is.

Three years ago when I was leading the graduate recruitment programme at a large professional services firm, I was invited to take part in an employee discussion panel at a conference for academics organized by the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants. NZICA had assembled heads of accounting departments from all the NZ universities. It was a real eye opener for them and for us.

They asked us what employers were looking for in graduates. Most of them still thought we were looking for straight A students! When we told them their straight A students usually didn’t cut it in our organisations they were visibly shocked. Graduate employers generally want well rounded, mature, bright, sociable, confident students with a range of life experiences and self awareness. Good grades yes, but not straight A’s. If all you do is study at university, you’ve got nothing to offer the corporate world. Kids who have not got involved in student life, travelled, worked and generally can’t hold a conversation or are socially awkward are no good to graduate employers no matter how clever they are.

The academics argued it was not the job of universities to prepare these kids for working life and teach them soft skills and vocational skills. I know from her blog, that’s a view Sarah Miller shares. Sarah says her course was great and that she wanted to be at university not a high school equivalent, and that if students want to learn all about real HR they need to do that themselves and are provided with the resources to help them do it. Universities should be solely about academia. I understand and respect Sarah’s view, but I don’t really agree with it.

What became clear at the NZICA conference was that the people who determine what students learn very rarely spoke to employers or even their own careers service staff. They were a little out of touch with the real world and realised they were probably setting students up to fail. We all agreed we needed to engage much more with each other to get the best for students and it was up to the likes of professional institutes like NZICA or HRINZ to facilitate and lead that.

In terms of Sarah’s point above, I feel the world of learning has changed considerably in the last 20 years. University is no longer a place of excellence exclusively inhabited by the academically gifted and privileged few. A degree is now the minimum qualification for most basic entry level roles and you are considered odd if you don’t go to university. There has to be more taught than just theory.

For example, I’ve spent a lot of time on university campuses around the country in the last ten years. Never once have I ever been asked to come and talk to students about “HR.” Although I have excellent relationships with careers advisors, I can count the number of real conversations held with academics on one hand. We rarely saw them at employer events. I’ve done lots of other things like company presentations, careers fairs, CV workshops etc. but never been asked to talk to or work with HR students. Nor has anyone I know in the profession been asked to. Surely part of the learning needs to be real life examples from real life practitioners?

One of the weaknesses here compared with say the UK, is that the professional institute do not appear to control what students get taught on these courses and there is no recognized post-grad professional qualification like the CIPD. Equally, most employers in NZ are just not investing in graduates and I would struggle to name any organizations in this country who take HR grads every year into a specific development programme although I’m sure there are one or two.

By pure coincidence, I heard a few days ago that a recent graduate I know has just secured her first HR Administration role. I was a referee for her after having got to know her at my previous employer when she was our First Foundation student. For those of you not familiar with First Foundation, it is a unique NZ educational trust that gives young New Zealanders with plenty of talent but few financial resources a hand up into tertiary education. Students work during their holiday periods with their sponsoring employer, who pay their university fees and help them to meet their financial targets. It’s a superb programme and hundreds of students from low decile schools around the country have benefitted from it.

While I am delighted for her, I’m also very conscious that this is her first full-time job and she will have a steep learning curve. I hope that her new employer gives her the space and support she needs to succeed in the role as she learns about the “real” HR profession. But she will need more than on the job coaching and I have offered her my assistance as a mentor. After all, if we can’t expect universities to equip students with the skills it is surely up to us in the profession to put something back and help the HR leaders of tomorrow.

I do think we need to be much clearer about the modern role of universities and what employers can expect of students straight out of university to make the transition easier and close the expectation gap. If there is such a big gap we need to bridge it, or we will continue to have degrees of HR mediocrity in more ways than one.

9 thoughts on “Degrees of HR mediocrity

  1. In defense, I am on the HRINZ Auckland Branch committee looking after the student portfolio. Only last week we did an event where we got HR practitioners to talk to HR students. This was modeled on an event run in Auckland and Wellington last year – so there are things HRINZ are doing to support the connection between educational institutes and the profession. However, I do agree that there should be more done – but what exactly? I also know that the universities are keen to get real businesses to shape HR research but few businesses are willing to give this the time and the effort. I think there is definitely an opportunity for more dialogue between the profession and the universities- but I’m also keen to know who is willing to take on this conversation?

    • I agree Amanda! It needs to happen with both parties. I’m thinking that HRINZ should have someone full-time employed and dedicated to this section of HR. It is important as we move forward in the new era of work. Volunteers are very limited with the time able to give and with the level of interaction, so I completely understand that currently the way it works it is a lot of effort with slow movement from the University aspect. Maybe we need to push for a dedicated resource to this field and to have those hard conversations? Just a thought.

      • They could learn some interesting lessons from NZICA on how to engage at tertiary level and be an employer advocate. Equally, if employers are not pushing them to do it why would they? As members we need to demand more of our institute.

  2. You’re dead right but not sure that academic HR is any different than academic Marketing or academic Finance?

    Back in the 80’s in the UK I did a Business Studies degree which was known as a sandwich course, first two years academic and third a year of real life working experience followed by a specialised academic year which in my case was HR.

    This was a practical approach probably not so well known in NZ where there is a more of tradition I think of internships in the holiday period. It’s probably a good system to get students some work experience and then be able to draw on it in their study.

    I do think though that the HR profession and the tertiary providers should steer away from too much specialisation early on in HR. HR people should as a rule have some experience outside of HR to be more effective especially before they “lock in” their HR careers.

    See my article next month in HRINZ magazine onn why more HR people don’t become CEOs!

  3. I agree with you too Richard! I suppose I lucked out, since my professors were also involved in projects being run by the university’s Centre for HRM and were switched on to business interests & topics (check out their fascinating current projects http://www.unisa.edu.au/Research/CHRM/Key-projects/). Also, we regularly had HR pros come in and just give lunch time talks with Q&A sessions. I will always support degrees being relevant & current.

    I will just make a grumpy rant when people say that it’s not the student’s fault they aren’t prepared – the amount of resources (including complimentary membership to the Australian HR Institute during our study) was incredible, but it took a switched on undergraduate to take advantage of it. The professors were pulling their hair out trying to give us the opportunities – and that’s where I particularly like universities being different from highschools, because spoon feeding takes away from everyone’s learning experience and eventually, from the quality of the degree they earn. Yes, make sure the courses are relevant and the resources are available, but also, keep the accountability where it should be – on the graduate being employed.

    • Sounds like you did luck out Sarah. It’s definitely not the case here at NZ universities hence our strong feelings about it. It’s very oold school, and even some of the theory is far too old to even be relevant.
      You keep pointing out that we are making it the accountability of the university for the outcomes but that’s not what we are saying at all. It’s up to the graduate to make a success story, but without the correct and relevant tools, there isn’t much to build on. That’s the point we are making. Not trying to put blame on the university, but simply debating that they should make it more relevant to today’s world. You seem to have been lucky in your degree. But definitely not the case here in NZ.
      I agree with the degrees in UK with 2 years theory, 1 year practical and then 1 year theory. It’s a great way to provide practical learning. It’s just not enough just to provide theory anymore. That is simply what this issue is about. Not accountability.

    • I think you got lucky Sarah. Obviously a different experience in Australian universities! And yes I do agree that students need to take more responsibility for taking advantage of the opportunities available as well as making their own opportunities to learn and develop.

      Agree David. Otago started a similar programme with a practical year of work experience but it isn’t widely available. Looking forward to reading the article. And yes, I agree the England cricket team have been disappointing on this tour 🙂

      Can’t argue with you Amanda. Both sides need to engage much more to close those gaps. As employers we need to put back into the tertiary sector not just take from it.

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