Considering a career in the People Profession?

HR and L&D is about creating successful businesses through people – making sure you’ve got the right people, with the right skills in the right roles. 

The HR and L&D profession spans every industry and covers a huge spectrum of jobs, specialisms and careers. 

To help you decide which path is right for you, let’s take a closer look at some of the essential information.

What is HR?

HR is about helping an organisation to create value through its people – literally providing human resources. The work of an HR professional will vary depending on the type and size of their organisation, but could include recruiting people, training and developing employees, and helping to decide how staff should be paid and rewarded. There are even roles which focus on employment law and protecting the rights of employees at work. HR professionals will also often deal with legal issues, help to shape the culture of their organisations, and focus on what keeps their colleagues productive and engaged.

HR gives you the opportunity to work in every sector, from media to engineering and from banks to charities as most businesses need an HR professional to help support their people management. And HR professionals work globally so the world is your oyster!

So, if you’re interested in business and enjoy understanding how people work and what motivates them to perform well, a career in HR and people development could be the one for you.

What is L&D?

L&D stands for learning and development and is specifically focused on helping people learn new skills so they’re motivated and productive at work. L&D professionals are concerned with getting the best out of their workforce and developing their skills and capabilities to drive business performance.

The work of an L&D professional can also be very varied and may include delivering activities as diverse as firearms training for police officers or mentoring programmes for fund managers, they may be involved in coaching line managers to help support their teams, or creating and evaluating training programmes for their organisation. L&D professionals will focus on supporting, developing and accelerating learning in order to build agile and responsive organisations with the capability they need to execute their chosen strategy.

What are the key areas of HR and L&D specialism?

With such a broad range of activities, what sort of role could you go into? In some organisations, you can cover the full range of HR work, gaining a broad range of skills and experiences – this is called a generalist role. In other organisations, you may be able to specialise in a particular area. If so, there are many options available to you including:

  • Recruitment and talent planning
  • Learning, training and development
  • Employment law
  • Employee relations
  • Performance and reward
  • Employee engagement
  • Organisation development

How much money could I earn in HR and L&D?

Starting salaries for HR and L&D professionals are similar to those in other trainee jobs, although if you have a relevant qualification and work experience you’ll be able to negotiate higher salaries. If you’re just starting out from school or college, you’ll probably earn around £15,000–£19,000 a year. But as you gain qualifications and experience your salary can go up significantly. HR Officers could earn upwards of £24,000, HR managers can earn between £30,000 and £50,000 and HR and L&D directors over £80,000!

It’s worth remembering that salaries in local government, charities and smaller businesses can pay less than large businesses and sectors such as banks and financial services. As an HR and L&D professional you’ll also have access to other benefits such as bonuses, pensions and holidays, all of which vary from job to job.

What skills would I need for a career in HR and L&D?

Outside of qualifications and work experience, it’s worthwhile considering the personal qualities you’ll need to be successful in HR. People who thrive in the profession tend to be:

  • strong communicators
  • trustworthy and discreet
  • business savvy and interested in how organisations work
  • good at working as part of a team
  • flexible, adaptable and patient.

HR and L&D professionals also need to be balanced and objective (as they often represent both fellow employees and their employer) as well as earning the trust and respect of their colleagues. 

A curious and questioning mind is also a great strength!

Key specialisms

Every organisation is unique and the size and scope of the HR and L&D function will adapt accordingly. HR departments often embody and project the values of their organisations so when thinking about your first (or next) role you should look first for organisations whose values you share.

The HR and L&D profession offers a wide variety of career options – but which role is right for you? Here’s an introduction to some of the different jobs and specialisms available.

HR Generalist​

Variety is the watchword here. One day you’re working with management on attracting and developing talent to deliver the business strategy. The next you’re engaging with an employee focus group teasing out bugbears and motivational triggers. You’ll need to be comfortable partnering with managers in the business and be ready to support (and challenge) them as they lead their teams. They’ll be looking to you for insights that can help drive lasting performance improvements.

‘As HR Business Partner, I act as the face of HR out into the business, and the voice of the business back into HR. It really is about managing two dynamic, intertwined relationships. No two days are the same. You have to build good relationships, trusting in the specialists’ expert knowledge whilst often thinking the business’ next thoughts before they’ve even thought about them. The variety, the breadth, and the feeling of being trusted as an advisor to the business make for a thoroughly enjoyable role!’

Charlotte Fordham. HR Business Partner, HSBC

Recruitment and talent planning

As a recruitment and talent planning professional, your role is to help fulfil the short and long-term requirements of your organisation’s strategy in a dynamic labour market.

You may have to plan for changing demographics, the supply and demand for labour, staff turnover and scarce skills. You may be responsible for identifying and attracting the key people who create competitive advantage for the organisation. You might be actively recruiting them; alternatively, you might be developing networks that make it easier to attract talented individuals cost-effectively over the longer term. 

You could also play an important role in identifying talent across the organisation and integrating that with succession planning and performance management.

Learning and Development

When an organisation gets the best out of its people and combines their skills and capabilities, it boosts its performance. What’s more, it helps those individuals discover their own strengths and potential. It adds up to a rewarding role for learning and talent development professionals.

As a learning and development (L&D) specialist, your role will be to help organisations execute their business strategy by aligning learning, training and development of its people with business priorities. L&D roles will depend on the type and size of the organisation but could include activities as varied as delivering firearms training for police officers or development programmes for fund managers. You might support coaching and mentoring programmes for your line managers or develop training strategy for the whole business. You’ll need to be able to think on your feet and you’ll benefit from having strong analytical skills.

Employee relations

Employee relations (ER) professionals maintain and develop effective working relationships across the organisation. They support managers by motivating and engaging the workforce. Employees perform better when they understand the goals of the organisation and they’ll be more motivated to deliver if there’s an opportunity to feed their views upwards.

As an ER professional you’re contributing to building a culture of trust, a pre-requisite for any healthy organisation. You’ll need to speak the language of the business and understand how people management can drive performance. Strong values are also important. You may be involved in managing the organisation’s relationship with its trade unions and workplace conflict. Whether you’re dealing with individuals or their representatives a genuine commitment to diversity, fairness and equal opportunity will facilitate dialogue.

Performance and reward

The reward function plays a critical role. Any organisation that wants to create and sustain a high-performance culture has to ensure that its people’s skills, behaviours, values, attitudes and contribution are rewarded and recognised.

Performance and reward professionals help set salary levels and allowances and manage pay relativities. You may be creating incentive and recognition schemes or evaluating benefits.

You need to be numerate and aware of the legal and regulatory landscape. It helps too if you’re a good communicator. You’ll be liaising with colleagues to create joined-up strategy. 

You could be asked to explain your organisation’s approach to rewards. And with issues like bonuses and pensions on your agenda, you may be engaging with top management.

Employee engagement

Employee engagement is a distinct discipline in larger organisations. It touches on related areas like employer branding and internal communication. It also connects with employee relations. It’s about building connections between employees and their organisation. How do you get them to feel a sense of loyalty and pride in their work, to go the extra mile, to become ambassadors for the business?

You’ll need strong analytical skills, because before you can change attitudes they have to be quantified. You may be asked to develop surveys, run workshops and focus groups to gauge the mood of employees. You’ll need to be able to make connections and share insights with management colleagues. A business can only be successful on a sustainable basis if its people understand and buy into its objectives. Your analysis and advice will be vital here.

‘You have to understand the drivers of employee engagement – what is the unique DNA that sets you apart? It’s easy to dismiss the management information that can give you real and unique insight. Whilst you don’t want analysis paralysis, you do want deep and meaningful insight and you use this to create a compelling vision for your employees.’

Gill Hill, Senior Manager, Leadership and Development, Nationwide

Organisation development

Organisations today are in a constant state of reinvention. They need to remain agile to cope with the challenges of a fluid, fast-paced external environment. As an organisation development (OD) specialist, you get to play a key role in managing the process of change. You could be asked to deliver programmes that impact on the organisation’s culture or develop its people. They may involve re-organisation and the creation of more effective and customer-focused processes.

Can you communicate change effectively with employees? You’ll need to paint a picture not just of what successful change will look like, but also of the risks and challenges that lie ahead. Organisation development practitioners work in a planned and systematic way – diagnosing issues using relevant data. They take into account the whole organisation and look at how involving people can achieve sustained business performance.

People Analytics

Using analytics to inform organisation decision-making. This area is about gathering and using data and information to provide insights into people issues and guide decision-making.

It involves understanding research design, framing of questions, and the quantitative and qualitative techniques which help to address organisational issues or challenges.

Analytical consulting enables the exploration of issues and problems in a methodical way, in order to shape solutions.  Approaches will involve knowledge of statistical analysis, interpretation and presentation of data in a meaningful way.

This combination of people intelligence, combined with improved decision-making, should maximise our ability as people professionals to make informed and actionable recommendations.

HR analytics can be applied to virtually any aspect of HR activity.

Enhancing employee morale: instead of absorbing the costs of losing key employees, organisations can mitigate against increased attrition rates by measuring the happiness and well-being of their employees and adapting their offer to employees accordingly. Career-development planning, and learning and development for high performers are both ways in which HR departments can use HR data to help improve the morale of the workforce.

Driving business performance: HR analytics can help to address performance issues by identifying workers with strong leadership skills and flagging those which do not mix with the culture of the team or organisation. By better matching job applicants or future successors to the right positions, organisations can improve their overall performance.

Improving retention: An organisation which is suffering from high turnover of key employee groups can use HR analytics to anticipate areas with specific issues and can then tailor their incentives to curb attrition accordingly. Better measuring the impact of HR activity on turnover can illustrate the specific needs of certain employee groups, for example adapting incentives for senior leaders to meet their needs if they have specific requirements to keep them from leaving

What are the best routes into HR and L&D?

Getting that first job

Although work experience is always important when applying for a job, your personal qualities, flexible approach and academic qualifications will also play a part in impressing future employers. 

If you want to build practical skills that are relevant to HR, it may be possible to find an unpaid placement or shadow someone who’s already working in the profession. And, if you’ve gained voluntary experience such as managing a budget, training and coaching, or used organisation and teamwork skills – perhaps in a club or society – it’s something to add to your CV.


Apprenticeships offer you the chance to get real work experience and a wage while studying a recognised qualification. Anyone over 16 and not at school or college full-time can apply for an Apprenticeship. 

They take between one and four years to complete. At the end of your Apprenticeship you can go into full-time employment, although some decide to go on to university.

There are lots of Apprenticeships you can do, but an Apprenticeship in Business and Administration will give you modules on HR, which is a great way to gain some understanding of this specialist area and what it’s like to work in a business.

Graduate training schemes

If you’re studying, you may decide to apply for a graduate training scheme when you leave university. You can either join a general graduate scheme, where you get experience in lots of different departments along with HR. Or you can join a programme that’s focused specifically on HR. They may also support you to gain a CIPD-approved postgraduate-level qualification.

Specialist university degrees

An alternative to apprenticeships or graduate schemes is to study a specialist course at university. You could apply for a human resources management degree or have a combined degree such as business management and human resources.

Accredited HR qualifications

If you’ve decided to continue with your studies, the CIPD is the recognised professional body which offers approved HR and learning and development qualifications. 

Anyone over the age of 18 can study for a CIPD qualification. Dependent on your experience and qualifications, you can apply for one of three qualification levels.

The CIPD Foundation level is a great introduction to HR and learning and development. You have options on how you study (part-time, full-time, distance learning) and many people complete the qualification in one to two years. The Intermediate level is for people with more experience and builds on your HR knowledge. 

The final option is the Advanced level. Graduates or people who’ve already got experience working in an HR role often apply for this level.

Most CIPD qualifications are a route to becoming a CIPD professional member and, in the future, to becoming a Chartered Member. This means you’ll be recognised as having met the rigorous criteria and professional standards for best practice in HR and you’ll be able to use the letters Chartered MCIPD after your name.

Why HR and L&D is a great career choice

1. Work anywhere!

HR (or human resources) opens doors to jobs in every sector – the world is your oyster. You can build your career internationally or at home. From media to engineering and from banks to charities, pretty much every industry and company will need to hire the expertise of an HR professional.

2. Keep progressing

A career in HR offers long-term options and a huge variety of roles. You could be involved in recruiting or training staff one day, or helping your company decide how staff should be rewarded the next. There are even roles which focus on employment law, protecting the rights of employees at work.

You can start off your career as an HR administrator but progress all the way to the top of the business as an HR director, helping to drive the direction of the business. Some HR specialists go on to be business owners and set up their own HR and training companies.

3. Never a dull day

You’ll never find you’re doing the same thing from one day to the next. As managing people at work can be complicated at times, you will be kept on your toes with lots of different challenges to overcome.

4. Help people and help business

HR plays a vital role in both business performance and people’s careers. HR is about making sure the right people are in the right jobs. Attracting people is an important first step, but that’s just the beginning. How do you then get your people to stay with you and perform to the best of their abilities, day in, day out? Are you giving them the skills, training and development to build long-term careers? How do you get them working together to drive business success? Or protect their rights and make sure they are fairly rewarded and treated at work? This is the important role that HR experts play at work.

5. Great earning potential

Not only are there a lot of HR roles to apply for, but you will also have the chance to earn a good salary over time. If you’re just starting out in HR from school or college, you’ll probably earn around £15,000–£18,000 a year. As you gain qualifications and experience, your salary can go up significantly. The average pay for an HR manager is £46,000, and when you progress to the top, you could be earning over £80,000 as an HR director!

Useful links

Careers in HR 


CIPD qualifications

HR degrees

First published by CIPD

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