HR graduates in Australia are now estimated to leave university needing to repay up to $100,000 in tuition fees. With higher education now carrying such a hefty price tag, you’d be forgiven for expecting students to emerge from the cap and gown work-ready.
International rankings suggest Australian universities compare well with their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world, but the March 2015 launch of the National Work Integrated Learning Strategy, designed to help graduates be truly ready for the workplace by placing more emphasis on practical opportunities throughout a degree course, suggests there’s still a long way to go.
Nationwide in 2013, just over 177,000 people studied management at university.
Dr Alan Nankervis, chair of AHRI’s National Accreditation Committee, says that while AHRI accreditation of HRM courses provides some assurance that HR graduates leave with useful skills, many courses still fall short in arming students with basic skills needed in the workplace.
“Employers constantly complain about the lack of competencies in written communication, interpersonal communication, or the ability to persuade employers or market their services,” says Nankervis.
Nicole Tighe is one such employer. As a people and culture manager at a state government department, she says the graduates she has worked with have arrived with a sound theoretical understanding of HR management, but haven’t had any exposure to practical experience.
That may be as expected, but, says Tighe, there are “definitely some elements of HR you can’t learn in a book and the unpredictability of working with other people necessitates real-world experience.”
Some people, she believes, try to apply a theoretical ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to HR management, which just cannot work. “To be successful in your role, you need to have a strong understanding of the individual business,” says Tighe. Once you have that knowledge, she says, it’s not necessarily a big step to show that you can contribute at a strategic level.
HR graduates need numbers
Big data is increasingly central to developing an effective HR management strategy, says Cathy Sheehan, an associate professor at Monash University’s Department of Management. As such, she advises students to choose an elective in evidence-based research that will give them the tools and credibility in their role. “In the interviews I’ve done with top management executives, they say that if HR people can provide evidence-based information, it gives them a lot more grip in their organisation,” says Sheehan.
Using mathematical capability and analysis to combine HR with sales and financial data will soon be a fundamental part of every HR professional’s work, says Susan Ferrier, KPMG’s national managing partner, people, performance and culture.
“I say to my team that everybody needs to be able to use a spreadsheet. You need to be able to analyse and present data in a way that tells a story about what is happening.” Ferrier says people with a background in mathematics will also have an edge. In general, she says, HR degrees produce good graduates, but there’s room for improvement. “HR graduates could move more quickly into a highly effective position if some of the lofty ideas and theories were more commercially grounded in the hurly-burly of what happens in an organisation.”
Maria Lopez-Ayala, resource co-ordinator at KPMG, graduated with a diploma in HR management last year. She says that while understanding HR theory was useful background knowledge, her most valuable skills have accumulated on the job. Her role includes workforce planning and reporting and forecasting revenues. “It’s very data heavy. I didn’t expect it to be that technical.
“In hindsight, the HR degree really didn’t help me all that much,” she says. “It really only gave me an in.”
Ferrier says it’s increasingly important for HR professionals to be ‘T-shaped’. “The idea is that you are broad and span multiple functions – whether it be marketing operations, IT, sales or revenue generating – but you can also be deep.”
The nature of management is that it’s a generalist degree says Carol Kulik, research professor at the University of South Australia’s School of Management, and while it’s valuable to couple that with another discipline such as finance, accountancy, IT or maybe marketing, she is cautious about the expectation that individual HR professionals should be trained to do everything.
“There’s a lot of talk currently about HR becoming business partners, but some HR professionals are interpreting that as focusing on strategy to the exclusion of day-to-day operational stuff – which still has to be done.”
Kulik believes we need to think simultaneously about what it is we want an individual HR person to do, as well as the whole HR unit. “We should ask what is the diversity of skills and background required and then populate an HR unit with those different skills. The expectation that one person can combine multiple competencies is not only a burden [on them], but unrealistic. Certification is a useful way to talk about HR skills and capabilities, but it shouldn’t take the emphasis away from the competencies of an entire HR unit.”
An emphasis on theory over practice in university teaching presents another problem, believes Nankervis, who says that some universities focus on research output to lift their status in global rankings. “I think they’re attracting academics who don’t have any [practical] experience because the emphasis is on publications and research rather than teaching.”
Lopez-Ayala says she learned much from teachers who were HR management practitioners, but that changed when all postgraduate teachers were required to have masters degrees. “A lot of my teachers only had a bachelor qualification, but they were teaching postgrad students and had to leave halfway through the year.” From then on, the course became very theory and textbook heavy.
It’s a problem acknowledged by Sheehan who refutes generalisations, saying academics can be great HR teachers, so long as they are active researchers engaging with industry.
Public servant Alison Roche recently complemented an accounting degree with a masters in HR management.
“Ideally, I want to be a corporate services director who oversees finance, HR, IT etc. The degree gave me what I needed, which was the background HR theory. That fits with what I do – business strategy and how it links in with budgeting.”
Yet she says her masters degree taught her little in terms of nuts and bolts skills. “I could have finished a course and started in middle management and not known a thing I needed for my job. But lots of courses are like that. You could learn accounting, but it’s not the same things that accounts does when you start a job.”
Certification and credibility
Dr Kim Schofield (FCPHR), lecturer at Curtin University and a former AHRI state president, says he was surprised when he arrived in Australia from the UK, where the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development certifies HR management practitioners.
“I was surprised that [Australian] employers weren’t looking for AHRI certification as part of their requirements,” says Schofield.
He helped develop the AHRI Practising Certification Program (APC), launched last year. It uses industry-based learning to give practitioners the essential prerequisites for advanced strategic HR management and raises the benchmark around HR capabilities in Australia.
The independent National Certification Council that oversees the awards has recently announced its first cohort of certified practitioners to have successfully completed the senior leadership pathway. It uses industry-based learning to give practitioners the essential prerequisites for advanced strategic HR management and raises the benchmark around HR capabilities in Australia.
Penny Lovett (FCPHR), who has worked in HR for many years at a senior executive level, says that going through the certification program has been enormously constructive. “At any point in a person’s career, even at the most senior levels, being able to reflect on what you have done, and continually learn from those experiences, is such an important attribute. It also has the added benefit of making my working life that much more interesting and stimulating.”
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This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the April 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Ready to Roll?”. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.