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ZD Guide: How to become an HR specialist

25th July 2023

How to Become an HR Specialist

How do you become an HR specialist in retail? How do you get started? What qualifications do you need? In our latest retail career guide, we explain…

HR in retail has changed

HR has always been an important part of retail. It’s always been the part that has dealt with the hiring, training, promoting, paying and (occasionally) disciplining of staff. It has set the policies that managers must follow. It leads the seasonal recruitment drive.

Even if the role had never changed, that sounds like quite enough to be getting on with.

But HR has shifted from a supporting role in retail to, arguably, the department that sets the tone and standard for everything that flows from recruiting the right people.

Why does HR in retail matter?

Today, HR specialist careers in retail are about ensuring a brand’s values are reflected in the way it acts. They are about recruiting, developing and empowering a diverse and inclusive workforce. About ensuring your people act as ambassadors for the brand, that they are able to balance work and life, and that, this time next year, they’ll still be proud to be part of the organisation.

As an HR specialist in retail, you set the policies that support the company culture and bring it to life. And you recruit and develop the people who will turn that culture into an authentic experience that customers see and feel.

How do I start my career in HR?

There is no single definitive HR career guide because there is no single HR career path. Although in a smaller organisation there may be a need for an HR generalist to cover a wide range of roles, in larger retailers, the HR function is likely to be more fragmented. You might, for example, build an HR specialist career in reward programmes, in diversity and inclusion (D&I), in employee experience, or learning & development.

Once, you might have started your HR career as a generalist and gradually specialised as you advanced. Today, it’s possible to specialise right from the off as, for example, an employee engagement assistant or D&I advisor.
While many of the skills are transferrable between HR disciplines, remember that the sooner you begin to specialise, the more likely it is that you will stay on that path.

If your experience is in D&I and you remain in that lane for some time, your natural next step will be to a more senior D&I role.

If you begin as an HR assistant in a generalist role, you’ll likely gain a more rounded experience, enabling you to explore the areas that appeal to you most before you pick an HR specialist career.

Zachary Daniels Salary Guide 2023

What qualifications do you need for HR?

The common perception is that you need a degree to get ahead in HR. It’s certainly true that lots of people who have HR jobs in retail have degrees. It’s also true that many (if not most) of the people in senior HR posts will have degrees.

But HR is the sort of career where lifelong learning is expected and often essential to staying up to speed with changing legislation. Lots of HR practitioners get degrees (and certainly post-degree qualifications) on the job.
If you don’t have a degree, therefore, it may not be a barrier to starting a career as an HR specialist as long as a) you have an impressive CV with strong experience and b) you’re prepared to study towards a degree or other professional qualification once in post.

What degree is best for HR specialist careers?

If you’re taking the degree route into retail HR, any degree may do the trick if you can back it up with experience. Inevitably, a better degree (that is, 2:1 or above) will often carry more weight with employers. A relevant degree (HR, business management, psychology) may give you an additional advantage.

How do I become an HR specialist?

Experience is important. It’s important if you’re aiming to become an HR specialist in retail via the degree route, because employers will want to see you have more to you than academic ability.
If you want to build an HR career without a degree, sector experience is an absolute must.
That obviously presents a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. How do you get experience in a job you haven’t yet got? There are several ways to approach it:

Look for HR-related opportunities within your existing retail role. Retailers often give shop floor/warehouse staff the opportunity to take part in head office initiatives like staff reward or learning package development. If you’re already working with a retailer, volunteering for opportunities like these could make an impressive entry on your CV.

Look for internships or apprenticeships. While some retailers do offer apprenticeships, it’s fair to say you’ll give yourself a bigger target to aim at if you broaden your sights and consider HR internships and apprenticeships with any organisation. Apprenticeships are available at Levels 3 and 5 (HR support and HR consultant) and the transferrable skills you develop should then enable you to switch to an HR job in retail. 

Start in recruitment. The role of recruitment consultant shares some of the DNA of HR specialists and may enable you to build skills and experience before you target HR jobs in retail.

What skills do I need for HR jobs in retail?

HR career guides all tend to suggest the following as ideal skills and traits for an HR career:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Emotional intelligence and empathy
  • Excellent communication skills
  • The ability to think strategically
  • Teamwork and/or leadership skills
  • A business/commercial focus
  • The ability to multi-task, work at pace and meet deadlines
  • Adaptability

Find HR jobs in retail with us

Ready to take the next step in your HR retail career? Find HR retail positions now or talk to us about building your career with us.

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