Ryan Greenbaum, left, the director of the undergraduate program in HR management at Rutgers University, with students in the program (Photo by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com)

If you’re a college student hoping to be employable someday soon, you might study engineering or math–but that’s not for everybody. Erik Raunikar, a student at Oklahoma State University, is sold on something else: human resources. HR is a career path with abundant opportunity, he believes. “I found a near-universal applicability in the business world,” said Raunikar, who has a mission statement ready-made for LinkedIn: “Every single firm out there needs the ability to not only hire the right person the first time, but also train them to become the highest-performing version of themselves.”

This spring, Raunikar will join an HR field stoked with fresh enthusiasm for disciplines like people analytics and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and determined to exercise its broadened reach in organizations. And like many newly minted HR professionals entering the workforce right now, he comes with a new understanding of the business and technical side of HR.

The HR field is growing, propelled by piqued awareness of social inequities, reexamination of workers’ relationship to work, and willingness from the C-suite to expand HR’s involvement in business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for HR specialists will grow “8% percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.” Employers are adding HR leaders with new specialties, including chief diversity officers, directors of people operations, HR data analysts, and HR tech leaders.

“Covid-19 has had a big impact on the perception and view of the value of HR. It’s seen as a critical and strategic function,” Lynn Merritt, SVP and chief HR officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, told From Day One. “Additionally, the challenge around the war for talent has increased the value and interest in recruiting, career pathing, organizational design, and development, which I think has created a larger appreciation as well as a greater interest for the younger generation.”

The world of higher education has taken notice–and responded with more curriculum and advanced degrees. This year, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania announced that it will add two disciplines for the academic year starting in 2023: an undergraduate concentration and an MBA with a major in DEI, as well as degrees in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in business, citing the “rising relevance” of these two priorities. Cornell University, whose School of Industrial and Labor Relations is regarded as perhaps the best in the field, offers both PhD and master’s degrees in HR, and Cornell’s digital unit, eCornell, now offers executive DEI certificates. Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies offers both a master’s degree in HR management and an executive DEI certificate.

The Path to an HR Career 

Ryan Greenbaum, the director of the undergraduate program in HR management at Rutgers University, says that for most undergrads in the management department, HR isn’t on the radar, at least initially. “Until they get into the intro to HR class, they don’t understand exactly what it is, and right when they get in, they realize how many different parts of each company are actually affected by what HR does.”

To some degree, the shift in focus during the pandemic toward greater concern about worker well-being may be inspiring students who want to be advocates for employees as well as social causes. “They have this innate interest in the subject because they love the human interaction, they love the people,” said Pearl Sumathi, assistant professor of practice at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State. Like Greenbaum’s, her students have little awareness of the field when they enter the classroom, but students quickly recognize the promise of a career in HR.

Giselle Battley, the global head of early-career talent at commercial real-estate firm JLL, sees new enthusiasm for the purpose-driven components of HR. There are two questions she gets from early career recruits: “What are you doing about DEI?” and “What are you doing about sustainability?”

Erik Raunikar, who is pursuing a degree in HR management at Oklahoma State University, aims to get an MBA someday as well (Photo courtesy of Erik Raunikar)

This energy for social and ethical responsibility is new. “That’s something before 2020 I’d never really heard students say, but in 2020 there was an explosion of job opportunities in the DEI field. Jobs that never existed before started popping up,” said Battley. “I’ve had a few students approach me even about the work that I’m doing in D&I recruiting, but I did that for many, many years. They’re asking, ‘How do I do that?’,” said Battley.

Drew Valvo, who works with Battley at JLL as a specialist in learning and development (L&D), started out at the company in a project-management role unrelated to HR, but during the pandemic felt himself drawn toward the growing emphasis on DEI in 2020. Valvo, who has a degree in biology from Clemson University, began recalibrating his career plans. “It was around July where I started to do a lot of introspection,” Valvo said. He didn’t really know how to make a difference, but he knew that marginalized workers needed advocacy. “LGBTQ rights were, and still are, pretty rocky. People of color always experience things differently. I think the pandemic really exacerbated that,” he said.

While still working full-time, Valvo enrolled in a graduate program at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., where he is earning a master’s of science in talent and organization development, with a concentration in DEI. Earlier this year, he moved into his L&D role at JLL. “My degree program has been really helpful in guiding myself both from a personal element, how to navigate and deal with my own change and stressors, and additionally, how to influence business decisions and how to make more inclusive spaces,” he said.

A Burgeoning Field 

While the human side of HR is what inspires many students, the field increasingly depends on digital tools to get the job done more efficiently. At the undergraduate level, both Sumathi and Greenbaum noted greater emphasis on quantitative and technical skills that might look more at home in a business-school curriculum.

“In the time that I’ve been here for four years, they’ve changed the curriculum up quite a bit to incorporate more STEM. They include an analytics track, data analytics, people analytics, statistics for [human resource management],” Greenbaum said.

Businesses recognize the need for quantitative acumen in HR. According to a 2018 study by HR.com and BambooHR, a typical HR department’s weakest skill is “understanding and using HR data.” Only 16% of HR professionals consider themselves HR data experts. “While [HR analytics] has always been around, workforce planning, job design, and employee value propositions will be anchored on workforce data,” said Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Merritt.

At Rutgers, Greenbaum sees a remarkable number of students interested in compensation policy, which happens to coincide with a growing public focus on pay equity and passage of pay-transparency laws. “They start to get a better understanding than what a lot of other students understand,” Greenbaum said. Students learn how compensation is calculated, and how to control their own. “They really dive into it,” he said.

Drew Valvo went back to school to get an MS in HR and now works for JLL as a specialist in L&D (Photo courtesy of Drew Valvo)

As the HR department commands a bigger say in business operations, HR management programs and business programs are starting to take on more similarities. Jeffrey Schwartz, who co-teaches a course on the future of work at Columbia Business School, told Bloomberg Businessweek that talk of the “future of work” in business schools was once about robots replacing humans, but now more closely resembles HR. As Bloomberg reporter Matthew Boyle put it: “It’s less about threats and more about such opportunities as exploring the proper relationship between a business and its workers, or the trade-offs between people and profits.”

Raunikar, the Oklahoma State student, sees his degree in HR management as a natural precursor to a career as an executive. He plans to one day get an MBA and start his own company in his hometown of McAlester, Okla. (Its motto: “Small Town. Big Frontier.”) Raunikar hasn’t decided on the business yet, but he wants to create something that can reduce housing costs and puts more cash in residents’ pockets. For now, he wants the HR experience.

“My end goal in its simplest terms is to leave McAlester–and perhaps Oklahoma–better than I found them. That’s my home, and it’s my duty to fix and maintain. The cool thing about learning HR, though, is I have the freedom to make that choice,” he said.

Appealing to business inclination is one way employers can attract this new wave of HR talent. “Showcase how HR as a function excels in your organization by strategically partnering with the business to accelerate growth and profits. Show the purpose for which you exist and how that translates to the HR strategy,” Sumathi said.

Valvo of JLL has the CHRO position in mind for himself, but detours are welcome because the applications are now so broad. “There’s no deadline on goals. There are so many opportunities that I can kind of go into or lean into that, fortunately, I don’t feel like I’m in a rush to do it,” Valvo said. “There are a huge array of possibilities in the HR whole realm that I’m really excited about.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and women’s experiences at work. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.