What I love about social media are the discussions and debates that spring up out of nowhere. Last week I read a blog written by a young HR person just starting out his/her career. The blog, written by “HR Minion” on the HRINZ blogsite described their first few weeks at work and how they went about their first project. However, what caught my eye was the following:
“In the four years at university and especially the 10 HR related papers in my last two and a half years, they never once covered how to be a HR Advisor. I understand that university is to prepare you for the real world, but at this point I didn’t feel like I was prepared to actually deliver in an HR role. Isn’t that the reason I paid $27,000+ for a degree in HR and Strategic Management?
I thrive on having to learn and in putting in more effort than I normally would in order to learn. But this may not be the case for everyone. I enjoyed university and it taught me how to meet deadlines, how to work in groups and how to research. But it didn’t teach me what it took to be good at practicing HR. Is this something that I should expect from University? Isn’t this why we are paying a top notch institution to teach us the practicalities of HR? I’m not sure. What are your thoughts?”
This is a bit of a hobby horse for me so I tweeted saying “a very telling comment about uni not preparing someone to be an HR Advisor. Why not?” Amanda Sterling (@Sterling_Amanda) agreed with the point before we got a contrasting view from Sarah Miller (@Whippasnappahr) who said that it wasn’t the job of universities to teach work skills and that they should be places to learn academic theory. She has since written a great blog piece on the topic which should be read alongside this post.
Disappointingly, there has been a deafening silence from HRINZ on this even though they were included in the discussion. Isn’t this an area our professional institute should be leading the way on? Or perhaps they just don’t monitor their Twitter account very closely? Either way, the student learning section of their website doesn’t appear to have been updated for three years but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect the work they are doing in the university sector. I would love to hear what their view is.
Three years ago when I was leading the graduate recruitment programme at a large professional services firm, I was invited to take part in an employee discussion panel at a conference for academics organized by the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants. NZICA had assembled heads of accounting departments from all the NZ universities. It was a real eye opener for them and for us.
They asked us what employers were looking for in graduates. Most of them still thought we were looking for straight A students! When we told them their straight A students usually didn’t cut it in our organisations they were visibly shocked. Graduate employers generally want well rounded, mature, bright, sociable, confident students with a range of life experiences and self awareness. Good grades yes, but not straight A’s. If all you do is study at university, you’ve got nothing to offer the corporate world. Kids who have not got involved in student life, travelled, worked and generally can’t hold a conversation or are socially awkward are no good to graduate employers no matter how clever they are.
The academics argued it was not the job of universities to prepare these kids for working life and teach them soft skills and vocational skills. I know from her blog, that’s a view Sarah Miller shares. Sarah says her course was great and that she wanted to be at university not a high school equivalent, and that if students want to learn all about real HR they need to do that themselves and are provided with the resources to help them do it. Universities should be solely about academia. I understand and respect Sarah’s view, but I don’t really agree with it.
What became clear at the NZICA conference was that the people who determine what students learn very rarely spoke to employers or even their own careers service staff. They were a little out of touch with the real world and realised they were probably setting students up to fail. We all agreed we needed to engage much more with each other to get the best for students and it was up to the likes of professional institutes like NZICA or HRINZ to facilitate and lead that.
In terms of Sarah’s point above, I feel the world of learning has changed considerably in the last 20 years. University is no longer a place of excellence exclusively inhabited by the academically gifted and privileged few. A degree is now the minimum qualification for most basic entry level roles and you are considered odd if you don’t go to university. There has to be more taught than just theory.
For example, I’ve spent a lot of time on university campuses around the country in the last ten years. Never once have I ever been asked to come and talk to students about “HR.” Although I have excellent relationships with careers advisors, I can count the number of real conversations held with academics on one hand. We rarely saw them at employer events. I’ve done lots of other things like company presentations, careers fairs, CV workshops etc. but never been asked to talk to or work with HR students. Nor has anyone I know in the profession been asked to. Surely part of the learning needs to be real life examples from real life practitioners?
One of the weaknesses here compared with say the UK, is that the professional institute do not appear to control what students get taught on these courses and there is no recognized post-grad professional qualification like the CIPD. Equally, most employers in NZ are just not investing in graduates and I would struggle to name any organizations in this country who take HR grads every year into a specific development programme although I’m sure there are one or two.
By pure coincidence, I heard a few days ago that a recent graduate I know has just secured her first HR Administration role. I was a referee for her after having got to know her at my previous employer when she was our First Foundation student. For those of you not familiar with First Foundation, it is a unique NZ educational trust that gives young New Zealanders with plenty of talent but few financial resources a hand up into tertiary education. Students work during their holiday periods with their sponsoring employer, who pay their university fees and help them to meet their financial targets. It’s a superb programme and hundreds of students from low decile schools around the country have benefitted from it.
While I am delighted for her, I’m also very conscious that this is her first full-time job and she will have a steep learning curve. I hope that her new employer gives her the space and support she needs to succeed in the role as she learns about the “real” HR profession. But she will need more than on the job coaching and I have offered her my assistance as a mentor. After all, if we can’t expect universities to equip students with the skills it is surely up to us in the profession to put something back and help the HR leaders of tomorrow.
I do think we need to be much clearer about the modern role of universities and what employers can expect of students straight out of university to make the transition easier and close the expectation gap. If there is such a big gap we need to bridge it, or we will continue to have degrees of HR mediocrity in more ways than one.