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Interview With An HR Master's Degree Candidate

May 21, 1999
Related Topics: Your HR Career, Featured Article
Ross Kerr, a Toronto native pursuing a Master’s degree in human resources management at Rutgers University, talks about where he and the rest of his HR-generation are headed.

Please describe your educational background.
My educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts at King’s College, in Halifax, Canada, with majors in sociology and history. I also have a certificate in human resources management. This certificate allowed me to write the standard exam for the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario (HRPAO).

So why did you choose to pursue a degree in HR?
I applied for HRM certification and took a summer job in the HR department of a major Canadian insurance company. Since I enjoyed the work and did well at school, I decided to take a full-time HR position with that company.

My role began as an administrator of forms for managers to change the pay and status of employees. As I developed relationships with the managers, I looked for opportunities to increase my value to them. Soon, I was interviewing and providing guidance on administering HR policies. My role quickly expanded to include consulting with managers on employee-relations issues, process improvement initiatives, and the reorganization of the Canadian division of the company.

Do you think a Master’s degree is necessary in this field?
To get a position in which one can make a significant impact on an organization, a higher degree—such as a Master’s—is helpful. A Master’s opens the door to more responsibility as a result of the skills that students gain and the credibility it offers. For those who want to be consultants, a Ph.D. is probably the better choice since much of the work is research-based. Many business-strategy consulting firms still prefer individuals with an MBA or Master’s in economics.

You said you had an HR certificate. You didn’t feel that it was enough?
Though I already had a certificate in HRM from Canada, I decided to pursue the Master’s (MHRM) for three reasons. First, the program offered a high profile education to help me compete for a role in the global labor market—that is, it would help me reach higher levels of an organization in any number of countries. Second, Rutgers is well known for its faculty; I wanted the opportunity to study with some of the leading researchers in the HRM field. Third, major U.S. corporations recruit from the Rutgers MHRM program and I wanted to test the employment waters south of the border.

Is HR education these days focused on "old HR" or "Real HR, Real Impact"?
The advantage of this program is that it offers studies in the traditional functions of HR (selection, performance management, etc.) and decision-making skills (financial analysis, statistics and research methodology), as well as the integration of those areas into an HR strategy that aligns with the business strategy. The program’s curriculum is focused on providing a comprehensive and integrated outlook on HRM practices, including courses in managing the global workforce, management and development of teams, and soft-asset due diligence during acquisitions.

Do you think an MBA is necessary for an HR professional to impact the business world?
I believe that it’s important to build an expertise—or a perspective—from which one can make decisions and base opinions. I chose to develop my skills from the HRM perspective. However, I also strongly feel that an effective HR professional must have the basic skills and knowledge taught in an MBA program.

Understanding the business and being able to speak the language of the others around the management table opens the door for HR professionals to deliver a significant impact on organizational performance. Since the combination of HR and MBA credentials provides the necessary competencies to implement an effective HR strategy, individuals with those skills will soon become one of the most sought-after commodities in the management labor market (if they aren’t already).

Is an MBA in the cards for you?
A balance must be found between work experience and education in order to make either one valuable. I plan to work toward an MBA during the course of my employment.

Was the accreditation worth the effort?
Without a doubt, accreditation is an important factor contributing to the acceptance of HR professionals as top management in organizations. People can see the process that an HR professional has followed to achieve some level of proficiency in the field. When I first wrote the exams, I thought it was a waste of time—but while I was working in the field, I saw a significant disparity between those who had HR education and those who didn’t. Those who have an HR education are clearly in a much better position to influence organizational decisions. The individuals tend to be regarded as innovative and thoughtful because they have substantive research and case studies to back up their positions.

What is your generation of HR professionals looking for?
For the most part, my colleagues (at school and at work) share the same driving ambition for HR professionals to be in a more influential role in terms of organizational strategy and implementing HR practices that effectively use the firm’s intellectual capital to generate greater economic value. The reality is few firms are adopting high-performance HR practices and many still view the payroll as an expense rather than an investment.

Will these firms change?
The future of HR rests in the hands of the current generation of HR professionals. As strong as the HR wave is, it may only last until the next economic downturn. The goal is to demonstrate the impact that HR can have on the economic value of organizations, at least to the extent that employees and the HR roles are no longer the first cuts to be made when the economy begins to slow down.

HR professionals today are, for the most part, more highly educated than in the past; we have standardized credentials—as do accountants and lawyers—which provide a solid basis for others to evaluate our skills.

As the global labor market expands, knowledge is an important asset that individuals will carry with them wherever they work. The future will hold promise for those who can become experts in at least one profession and then begin to make in-roads into other professions. It’s hard to argue with someone who understands your field as well—if not better—than you do.

Workforce Extra, May 1999, pp. 2-3.

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