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HR - to specialise, or not to specialise?

Becoming a HR specialist in a particular area can be extremely rewarding and may even pay a higher salary in some industries, than a more generalist role.

Both specialist and generalist careers choices offer pathways to senior, strategic roles – so if you’re a HR professional in the early stages of your career, what should you consider when deciding whether or not to specialise?

Try to get as much experience as you can

In the early years of your HR career, it’s best good to adopt the ‘try before you buy’ approach, gaining experience across the widest variety of areas possible.

To make the right choice as you progress, you’ll need to consider not only what you’re good at but what you enjoy the most. Specialising should be equally about your salary potential and be something you have a passion for and therefore be able to practice in for a number of years. You’ll only have this knowledge if you’ve tried several different areas of human resources first.

Research the different areas you can specialise in

Look into the areas you may be interested in and discuss with your manager about how you may be able to get insight into those areas. Many professionals will work on projects that cross multiple areas to gain extra experience. Some of the most common areas to specialise in include: 

  • Learning and development
  • Rewards (compensation and benefits)
  • Talent management
  • Employee relations
  • Employment law
  • Organisational design
  • Recruitment
  • Management information

Consider what you want

When thinking about specialising, you need to factor in your working style, technical skills, the size of your ideal organisation, what you enjoy and your career aspirations. These factors can all help you decide whether specialising in one area is for you.

Review at the market

A large career decision cannot be made without consideration of future market conditions. While a generalist can apply for a wider range of positions, they can also face intense competition from a larger group of professionals

However, while specialists can often find themselves in relatively high demand and low supply, opportunities may run a bit thin if the economy slows down.

Consider how your career move will play out given the likely nature of your current market. If you’re considering a new qualification, is this a good time? Or could it be risky given the current market climate?

Transitioning back and forth

It is not uncommon for HR specialists to move back into a more generalist role - while it may be more difficult to make the move to move back into general HR, it’s certainly not impossible.

If you are looking to move back into a generalist role, it can often be easier if you choose to do this internally or within the same industry sector. Relying on your industry knowledge will make the transition easier, particularly when leveraging your past generalist experience.

If you have chosen to specialise early on in your career, you could choose to upskill or undertake another qualification in order to bridge the gap and bring you up to speed on current best practice.

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