The new path to high-level HR, Part 1

How can new HR practitioners get ahead? Dan Cave examines how HR career paths are changing, amid increased expectations, the use of AI, burnout and economic uncertainty.

Like many in HR, Marina Kawarazaki, talent attraction and employer branding manager at the Dorchester Collection, fell into the profession almost by accident. After studying psychology and communications, she tried out roles in technology and marketing. None stuck.

It wasn’t until her first people role that she found her calling. “It was a warmer environment and I completely fell in love with it,” she explains.

Working firstly as an HR coordinator, Kawarazaki says the role gave her a critical grounding in what to expect moving forward. “As I didn’t have a specific HR education, this kind of experience was really helpful and created a strong foundation,” she adds.

For those who started in similar generalist roles – be it an assistant, associate or officer – with responsibilities ranging from contracts to payroll, they will recognise this critical stage of development. It’s a start that helped Kawarazaki flourish. She’s since become a talent coordinator, added employer branding to her remit, and was shortlisted for HR magazine’s Future Leader of the Year award in 2023.

While headline-making hiring difficulties underscore the opportunity in talent attraction, Kawarazaki’s career path, she doesn’t think that’s the only available route into HR. “In HR there are so many areas you can go into, it’s possible to find your niche; that might be lateral or it might be about growing into a role,” she adds.

Read more: Moving on up: Where next on the HR career ladder?


The latest statistics suggest that HR is a function full of opportunities for newbies. Across the 2010s, CIPD data shows that junior roles grew by 47%, with 1.6% of the entire UK workforce employed in HR positions.

Opportunity exists right up the HR career path, too. Most (70% ) FTSE 100 companies now have a chief HR officer role, and senior roles are growing by 40%.

As Jig Ramji, chief talent officer at Aviva, sees it, HR is no longer just an auxiliary function but one led by more ambitious, change-focused people who are open to increased shareholder and employee demands. This means a more diverse array of hires is needed.

It’s a function hungry for talent. “With HR more centrally important, careers in the profession are diversifying, which means we need a broader, more diverse skillset,” he says.

The growth and diversification of HR that Ramji sees is born out in hiring trends, according to Kristian James, founder of Hawkwood, a firm that recruits HR roles for tech firms including Google, Deep Mind and Bumble.

“We’ve seen greater specialisation in HR, and more businesses are hiring for HR roles at an earlier point in their growth, with a higher ratio of HR people to workforce,” he says. James adds that, as people problems become agenda-topping issues for business, the profession will grow.

Even in the current recessionary blip, LinkedIn figures suggest that hiring for HR job roles, such as talent acquisition specialists and HR managers, is still on the up. Ramji adds that the current crop of leaders being more open to hiring different skillsets, as well as new talent being open to divergent opportunities, should drive the potential for even more varied career paths in the future.

“New generalist HR talent coming through is more open to portfolio careers, which means a more rounded HR workforce,” he adds. “And we need this: those who will grow deep expertise in talent and reward but also those who want to enter into sexy areas, like data and marketing.

“Now there is an opportunity for HR careers to be truly diverse,” he says. “If we support that correctly, there truly is a seat at the table for HR.”

New HR talent

While those at the top of the profession unsurprisingly advocate for breadth of opportunity in HR, talent won’t enter into the profession unless it HR is accessible. Progression also needs to be genuinely attainable.

Matt Wallace, HR advisor for Aspire Software, has only been in HR for a few months but remembers having to spend a long time refining his personal brand on LinkedIn, to get into the profession. “It’s incredibly difficult to access a career in HR,” he says, adding that he thinks an HR qualification, such as CIPD certification, could help.

“That said, I’m optimistic because my manager is supportive of my development. There’s a career map.”

With HR well known as a responsive and fast-paced profession, Wallace adds that he is aware of the need to have clear boundaries to ensure that burnout doesn’t forestall his progression. Charlie Butler, a human resources assistant at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, also sees this risk, but his manager mentors him on both wellbeing and resilience.

“I’m fortunate to have a strong support system in place,” he says. With support from superiors, he doesn’t think that his ambition to be a HR director will be harmed.

It’s positive that junior professionals understand the risk of burnout in HR careers. Claro research published last year found that half of HR professionals do at least five hours of unpaid overtime a week. But LinkedIn figures suggest that HR turnover outstrips that of other white-collar professions such as finance and sales. Requests for support to HR leaders are on the rise.

Read more: HR professionals don't get enough training and support, survey finds

However, burnout isn’t the only potential driver of drop-outs. Junior professionals need to see achievable progression pathways to want to stay in HR.

Positively, Butler says these are clearly defined in HR. This is not only because of the profession’s expertise in road mapping but also because skills development is supported through the CIPD, because of the help that HR tech can deliver and the grounding that early HR roles provide.

“While maintaining staff files may seem mundane, they contribute to my understanding of the broader scope of HR,” he adds. “With enough determination, opportunities for growth and advancement become attainable.”

For Dylan Hall, HR project officer at Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland, HR is accessible at any stage of an individual’s career. In his current team, no one intended to work in the function. Half entered into it in the middle of their careers.

He adds that even lateral HR progression is signposted, and he’s always engaged by the varied work. Hall has already been given the opportunity to work with senior business leaders, developing crucial partnering skills, and the profession is increasingly flexible on hours.

“As a team we have built an open and honest culture,” he says. “We trust each other to have that flexibility. I work in a hybrid manner.” His only wish is that more is done to advertise how accessible and dynamic the career is to younger people.

Hall’s managers have helped him build both his profile and skills: “I have a clear idea of what my options are and specifically what my journey could be.”


This is the first part of the cover article that was published in the March/April 2024 edition of HR magazine.

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