Mike Fazey FAHRI, senior lecturer in HR management at the University of Notre Dame Australia, advocates graduate programs and a ‘professional year’ as effective ways to help HR graduates enter the workforce.
Q. When taking those first steps from university, how effective are graduate programs in terms of applying HR knowledge in the workplace?
Graduate programs are a great way to enter the profession because they’re structured and provide support and on-the-job training. In many ways, it’s the ideal way to begin your HR career.
However, it’s really only the larger corporate employers that have scope and resources to offer formal graduate programs. Many HR graduates go to work in smaller organisations, where experiences vary.
It’s quite common for graduates to begin as HR administrators. While this is a good way to learn about the organisation and how it approaches HR, some graduates might feel that transactional HR is fairly boring after completing degrees that focus on the more strategic aspects of HR.
Q. Do current HR degrees equip graduates with the required skills? If not, what’s missing? Would you advocate a transition program?
AHRI’s system of accreditation goes a long way to ensuring that universities are focusing on the right things and that graduates from accredited programs are emerging with fundamental skills and knowledge that are consistent with HR’s contemporary role as a strategic business partner.
What’s missing is first-hand knowledge of practice. But there are ways universities can enhance this.
A possibility for future consideration is to introduce a ‘professional year’ similar to the accounting profession, where graduates undertake further structured education and training during the year after graduation, sponsored by their employers.
This could be linked to achieving full member status with AHRI.
It’s debatable whether we need something like that right now, but it’s certainly worth considering as our profession becomes more complex, and it would be a good way to manage the transition from university to work.
Q. How can universities help HR students bridge the gap between theory and practice?
There are two ways. Firstly, through the types of learning activities they provide.
I’m a big fan of the case method, where you present students with realistic scenarios that require them to deal with an issue or solve a problem. I use these a lot. They’re a great way of introducing students to the types of issues and problems that HR professionals deal with every day.
Many of the scenarios I’ve devised are based on actual cases drawn from my own experience as a practitioner. Once we’ve critiqued students’ approaches to the scenarios, they love hearing what actually happened in real life and whether the outcome was positive or not.
The benefit of these types of learning activities is that students have to apply their theoretical knowledge while also taking into account things like balancing organisational needs with employee needs, relationships with stakeholders, internal politics, ethical considerations, the legal environment and other contextual factors – just like you have to do in the workplace.
The other way is by providing workplace experience. At Notre Dame, all HR students – and indeed all business students – are required to undertake a 150-hour internship placement as part of their degree. There’s no substitute for experience.
There’s also a practical benefit because many students receive a job offer from the company they’ve done their internship with.
Q. Where do you think HR graduates have the least amount of knowledge and/or support? In particular segments such as talent management or in understanding business strategy?
I think most HR graduates have a pretty good understanding of the strategic issues and the connection between HR and business strategy.
One area where more needs to be done is workforce planning. Given the challenges presented by the ageing workforce phenomenon, workforce planning is a vital skill. It’s an area where HR can really add value.
I’m not aware of any university that teaches workforce planning to undergraduates at anything more than a conceptual level.
Another increasingly important area is the management of flexible work arrangements. For a whole range of reasons, non-standard work arrangements are becoming more and more common. Developing the policy frameworks and managing the issues that arise from these kinds of arrangements are, therefore, increasingly important.
While most graduates are aware of the different forms of flexible work, they perhaps lack an appreciation of the challenges of making them work effectively. I’ve found that the case method of teaching I mentioned earlier is an effective way to raise students’ awareness of the operational implications of workplace flexibility.