2008: Buoyant HR job market ahead

by 22 Jan 2008

2008 is shaping up to be a good year for HR jobs. Craig Donaldson speaks with a number of experts about the latest trends and how HR professionals can make the most of career opportunities over the coming year

With a number of unique economic and legislative changes affecting business in 2008, HR professionals have an opportunity to assist their businesses in a unique capacity. As such, demand for HR professionals with certain skills will be high, and HR professionals need to think seriously about their own development and career path.

“[This year] is going to be a stunning year for HR professionals,” according to David Owens, managing director of HR Partners. “I think all Australian HR professionals will find the job market pretty welcoming. This market is comparatively opportunity-rich, and most HR professionals should be able to experience some degree of choice when they go out on the job market.”

Specialist trades are very much in demand, according to Owens, with learning and development (L&D) and recruitment specialists in particular demand. “We’re seeing an acute shortage in the mid-level L&D professional market. This kind of professional is someone who perhaps manages the curriculum – it’s more a strategic partner to the business rather than a facilitator,” he says.

Paul Breslin, group manager of HR Matters, says 2008 will continue to be a strong year for HR professionals. While there has been some slowing down of the market on an international front, Breslin says that locally the market for good HR professionals is very buoyant and strong.

“With the Labor Government’s proposed changes, industrial relations specialists roles are back on the agenda,” he says. “While we haven’t seen this translate into actual hiring activities yet, there have been a number of instances where organisations have deployed internal resources into some of these roles. There has also been an increase in the legal sector with companies seeking advice from their lawyers around IR changes, so we would anticipate a trend towards a greater number of employee and industrial relations which we haven’t seen while the Liberal government was in power.”

Breslin also says that there has also been a very strong uptake in the number of contract project and change management roles, with a number of company restructures in the market. “Companies have continued to implement change programs and restructures, as they continue to try and seek cultural change and engagement from their staff.”

Craig Mason, managing director of The Next Step, says that demand for good HR professionals will remain strong throughout 2008, with particular demand for professionals with skill sets in the areas of mergers and acquisitions (M&As), industrial relations and remuneration.

“There may be some pickup in consolidations within various markets, which will lead to increased demand for HR professionals with M&A, acquisition or divestment capabilities,” he says.

“There will also be a need for people who have some broader understanding of the IR environment, potentially even more so than when WorkChoices was rolled out. So moving forward there will be a need for people to be across new legislation and related compliance issues.”

Mason also says there will be a strong need for HR professionals with experience in remuneration. With strong employment but continued inflationary pressures, businesses will need to balance retaining staff but also remaining competitive. “So an ability to give very strong clarity around what’s happening in the employment marketplace and compensation levels will be in demand.”

Improving careers in the short-term

There are two very distinct markets for HR professionals in Australia, according to Mason: the senior market and the early and intermediate career markets. For both markets, he says professionals always need to build business capability and awareness levels. “Both markets need to constantly improve in these areas and make sure they are commercially savvy and focused on the business outcomes.”

At the senior end of the market, Mason says that professionals need to be conscious that the market in Australia is finite and that there is a strong demand. “Unless people raise their profiles and put themselves out there, they might miss opportunities. They need to be constantly thinking about what’s next for them,” he says.

For the early and intermediate career market, HR professionals also need to have a really clear picture of their next role in order to reinforce the direction they want their career to head in, according to Mason. “These professionals need to objectively think about what skill gaps they have, how they can best fill these and how to position themselves for future.”

As such, Mason says there are four distinct considerations for HR professionals in the early and intermediate career market. He says they should align themselves with a strong company brand, focus on working with strong HR leadership, understand how HR team structures will impact their role, and work with a business where HR is measured and has metrics that they can impact on. “If you can line those four things up, you’re going to have a really good story to tell in the future.”

Offshore experience

Australians are generally held in high regard when it comes to working in other countries. The same holds true for HR professionals, and the UK, Asia, the USand the Middle East are common destinations for HR practitioners looking to spread their wings.

Owens says that it’s not so much about the destination, but more so the quality of the experience. “The scale and complexity of a role are more important. If a role can develop a whole lot of new skills and provide for some new experiences, then that is what they should be looking at. In terms of career development, there has to be something of a step-up or a step-out experience for the HR professional.”

The step-up in work could be at a different level of either scale or complexity, while they might also get to learn about a new region or a new geography and/or different business environments, he says.

In the next three years, Owens expects there to be many more HR professionals taking up appointments outside of Australia. This will create opportunities at home, but he says it will also mean that there will be more Australian talent working in other countries. “I think it’s going to be a really interesting year for HR,”he says.

Operational roles

One increasingly common way for HR professionals to gain business experience is by taking up an operational role in another part of the business. This not only helps HR practitioners raise their profile, but builds their reputation for having commercial understanding and acumen, according to Breslin.

“It doesn’t have to be two years, but even six to 12 months in an operational role within a business is enough. The value of that cannot be underestimated moving forward in HR. A 12-month secondment into a business role will give a HR candidate a massive advantage over others. You can’t underestimate that, because it’s experience to have,” he says.

Operational experience will also assist HR professionals long-term. “The best way to demonstrate commercial understanding is to show that you’ve actually had time on the other side of the fence, as well as being a subject matter expert within HR,”according to Breslin.

Organisations want people who can add value, and to be able to add value, HR professionals have got to be able to engage with the business, he says. Organisations now want and expect HR practitioners to actually know what it is like on the other side of the fence, according to Breslin, rather than just having a theoretical understanding of it.

Common career pitfalls

There are a surprisingly common number of career pitfalls for HR professionals. There is no profession better than HR to exemplify the benefits of career planning, and deliberate and patient career planning yields excellent results in HR, according to Owens.

“I think it would be fair to say that in HR at least 50 per cent of the people we interview would have a very clear idea of where they are heading in their next job or for the next three to five years,” Owens says.

“Of that group, I would say the majority have already been planning their career since they finished their degree or since they first got their first job in HR. I think it’s one of those things that HR people tend to do a lot of and I think they’re probably the most sophisticated category of worker in terms of deliberately planning their career.”

Of the remaining 50 per cent, most would have a good idea of where they’re heading in their career, he says. “They just perhaps haven’t nailed down a deliberate plan.”

Another common pitfall for HR professionals is that they don’t diversify their experience broadly enough in the early stages. If a practitioner starts off as an L&D professional early in their career, they risk becoming an L&D specialist if they stay in the role for too long,” according to Breslin.

“They need to be able to move around in HR, because if you want to progress into a HR director’s role, there’s a big difference between people who can understand how all parts of HR link together to achieve a successful cultural transformation and those who don’t. You can’t do that by just being an L&D specialist. If you aspire to be at the senior leadership table and work with the CEO and leaders of the business, then you really need to be able to bring those different strands of HR together.”

Similarly, another common career pitfall for HR professionals is not having a robust relationship with their HR leader. Most senior HR professionals will assist their coworkers as they strive to achieve their career goals, according to Owens. “That support is a critical success factor. Your manager is the best empowering agent in your career in HR,” he says.