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HR Goes To Grad School

May 1, 1999
Related Topics: Your HR Career, Featured Article
Employers increasingly expect HR professionals to be certified. However, if you’re seriously hoping to climb the higher rungs of management, you may need to consider going a step further—obtaining an MBA.

In 1989, Doug Stirling, an employee development consultant with Frazer, Pennsylvania-based DecisionOne Corporation, decided to pursue his MBA. After nine years of general HR experience, he knew the only way to increase his business knowledge was to return to graduate school. It took him four and a half years to acquire his degree from Oklahoma State University, but he strongly advises upward-bound HR colleagues to consider this option. Below, he shares his insights with Workforce readers.

How did you end up working in HR?
Like many human resources professionals, I didn’t select HR as a career choice in college. In fact, I had never heard of the term human resources until after I graduated from college in 1981. My first exposure to HR came when I was working as a quality control analyst for the production department of MPSI Systems Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a 300-employee software development company that models retail petroleum markets. The vice president of production needed someone to track the compensation activity of the department, and conduct a cost analysis of pending merit and promotional increases. He asked me to develop a spreadsheet showing current salaries and pending compensation actions. Eventually, I was asked to conduct employment interviews for the department.

Are the skills and competencies required now different from when you entered the HR field?
Yes. I always felt I had good [administrative] and interpersonal skills. However, as I began to advance in my career and assume more responsibilities, I felt I was weak in the business aspects of an organization. My undergraduate degree was in sociology, so I had little understanding of finance, marketing, economics and accounting. Also, my manager valued my contributions, but my potential was limited without an understanding of business topics. As a result, I was never consulted on decisions that affected the business or even the department. I was always told what had been decided—and then expected to deal with the human resources aspect of the decision.

How did the MBA program fit into your HR career?
In order to gain the respect of upper management, I knew I’d have to understand their methodologies and speak their language. For that reason—as well as the dream of possibly owning a business—I decided to pursue my MBA, which I did about eight years after completing my undergraduate degree.

Who did you turn to inside of your company for support?
Once I decided to pursue my MBA, I sought the advice of several company executives who held MBAs. Each emphasized the importance of understanding the key principles governing how business decisions are made. I recommend talking to other human resources professionals and business executives.

What did you look for in an MBA program?
I sought personal fit, and that’s what I’d advise for others. I’d make sure the program’s strengths are consistent with your own professional goals. Remember, graduate schools specialize in different aspects of business. If your goal is to specialize in labor relations, then an MBA program that’s strong in organizational development may not be the best fit. Other factors should also be considered: the location, costs, time of day the courses are offered and flexibility of class schedules. And don’t limit your investigation to physical schools. MBA programs are offered online. The same criteria applies: Make sure the school is reputable. Check references, and be sure your school is fully accredited.

How much time does one have to devote to such a commitment?
Since I didn’t have an undergraduate business degree, I enrolled in a graduate program that was specifically designed for students with a non-business undergraduate emphasis. The down side was that it took me four and a half years to complete my degree—generally taking two courses per semester at night while continuing to work full time. This certainly affects your family life. So figure on at least three years of night school for a 30-hour graduate program. Both of these timeframes can be reduced by taking classes during the summer—an option I chose to skip.

Did you start using the knowledge right away?
Upon graduation, I began working for Maxwell Temporaries (now part of StaffMark Inc. in Oklahoma)—a staffing firm with 1,100 full- and part-time employees throughout the northeast portion of the state. The MBA helped me begin a new division within the company. I was asked to start an HR consulting division. This required sales, marketing, pricing, presentation skills—and of course, a generalist’s knowledge of HR. The MBA helped establish my credibility as I met with company owners and presidents when pitching our consulting services. I could show them the return on their investment in purchasing my service. I knew if I could show them the bottom line benefit, the sale was made.

How else did the MBA benefit your employer?
One benefit of taking courses while working full time is that you apply the knowledge immediately in a real work environment. I was in graduate school when the ADA was signed into law. As a result, I wrote a major paper on the ADA and its effect on organizations. I’ve since used the labor law knowledge continuously in a variety of circumstances to protect my current company from exposure to litigation through prevention, investigation, training and fair application of statutes.

You still pursued your senior professional HR certificate (SPHR) afterwards. Why?
I pursued certification to round out my education and credibility. It’s important because it demonstrates a certain level of professional commitment and basic HR competency. Anyone who is serious about a career in human resources should pursue the appropriate certification for professional competency and self-confidence. Whereas the MBA gave me the business skills I needed, the SPHR gave me the credentials and self-confidence I needed in the HR field.

Do you think your MBA and HR certification have helped advance your career?
In the final analysis, any education expresses its full worth when put into practice. An MBA opened doors for me that otherwise would have remained shut, such as teaching college courses, starting an HR internal consulting division—or most recently, getting involved in local politics. Is it worth the time, effort and cost? You will have to answer that question for yourself. It was for me.

Workforce, May 1999, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 88-89.

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