Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Careers

Personnel specialists, also known as human resources pro­fessionals, formulate policy and organize and conduct programs relating to all phases of personnel activity.

Labor relations specialists serve as mediators between employees and the employer. They represent manage­ment during the collective-bargaining process when contracts with employees are negotiated. They also rep­resent the company at grievance hearings, required when a worker feels management has not fulfilled its end of an employment contract. There are approximately 820,000 personnel specialists and human resources professionals employed in the United States.

Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Careers History

Human Resources ProfessionalThe concept of personnel work developed as businesses grew in size from small owner-operated affairs to large corporate structures with many employees. As these small businesses became larger, it became increasingly difficult for owners and managers to stay connected and in touch with all their employees and still run the day-to-day operations of the busi­ness. Smart business owners and managers, however, were aware that the success of their compa­nies depended upon attracting good employees, matching them to jobs they were suited for, and motivating them to do their best. To meet these needs, the person­nel department was established, headed by a specialist or staff of specialists whose job was to over­see all aspects of employee rela­tions.

The field of personnel, or human resources, grew as busi­ness owners and managers became more aware of the impor­tance of human psychology in managing employees. The devel­opment of more sophisticated business methods, the rise of labor unions, and the enactment of government laws and regula­tions concerned with the welfare and rights of employees have all created an even greater need for personnel specialists who can bal­ance the needs of both employees and employers for the benefit of all.

The development and growth of labor unions in the late 1700s and early 1800s created the need for a particular kind of personnel specialist—one who could work as a liaison between a company’s manage­ment and its unionized employees. Labor relations spe­cialists often try to arbitrate, or settle, employer-employee disagreements. One of the earliest formal examples of this sort of arbitration in the United States was the first arbitral tribunal created by the New York Chamber of Commerce in 1768. Although arbitration resolutions were often ignored by the courts in preindustrial United States, by the end of World War I, the court system was overwhelmed by litigation—and in 1925 the Federal Arbitration Act was passed, which enforced arbitration agreements reached independent of the courts. Today, personnel and labor relations workers are an integral part of the corporate structure to promote and communicate the needs of workers to management.

Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Careers Jobs Description

Personnel and labor relations specialists are the liaison between the management of an organization and its employees. They see that management makes effective use of employees’ skills, while at the same time improv­ing working conditions for employees and helping them find fulfillment in their jobs. Most positions in this field involve heavy contact with people, at both management and nonmanagement levels.

Both personnel specialists and labor relations special­ists are experts in employer-employee relations, although the labor relations specialists concentrate on matters per­taining to union members. Personnel specialists inter­view job applicants and select or recommend those who seem best suited to the company’s needs. Their choices for hiring and advancement must follow the guidelines for equal employment opportunity and affirmative action established by the federal government. Personnel specialists also plan and maintain programs for wages and salaries, employee benefits, and training and career development.

In small companies, one person often handles all the personnel work. This is the case for Susan Eckerle, human resources manager for Crane Federal Credit Union. She is responsible for all aspects of personnel management for 50 employees who work at three different locations. “I handle all hiring, employee relations counseling, correc­tive action, administration of benefits, and termination,” she says. When Eckerle started working for the credit union, there was no specific human resources depart­ment. Therefore, much of her time is spent establishing policies and procedures to ensure that personnel matters run smoothly and consistently. “I’ve had to write job descriptions, set up interview procedures, and write the employee handbook,” she says. “In addition, we don’t have a long-term disability plan, and I think we need one. So I’ve been researching that.”

Although Eckerle handles all phases of the human resources process, this is not always the case. The person­nel department of a large organization may be staffed by many specialists, including recruiters, interviewers, job analysts, and specialists in charge of benefits, train­ing, and labor relations. In addition, a large personnel department might include personnel clerks and assistants who issue forms, maintain files, compile statistics, answer inquiries, and do other routine tasks.

Personnel managers and employment managers are concerned with the overall functioning of the personnel department and may be involved with hiring, employee orientation, record keeping, insurance reports, wage surveys, budgets, grievances, and analyzing statistical data and reports. Industrial relations directors formulate the policies to be carried out by the various department managers.

Of all the personnel specialists, the one who first meets new employees is often the recruiter. Companies depend on personnel recruiters to find the best employees available. To do this, recruiters develop sources through contacts within the community. In some cases, they travel extensively to other cities or to college campuses to meet with college placement directors, attend cam­pus job fairs, and conduct preliminary interviews with potential candidates.

Employment interviewers interview applicants to fill job vacancies, evaluate their qualifications, and rec­ommend hiring the most promising candidates. They sometimes administer tests, check references and back­grounds, and arrange for indoctrination and training. They must also be familiar and current with guidelines for equal employment opportunity (EEO) and affirma­tive action.

In very large organizations, the complex and sensitive area of EEO is handled by specialists who may be called EEO representatives, affirmative-action coordinators, or job development specialists. These specialists develop employ­ment opportunities and on-the-job training programs for minority or disadvantaged applicants; devise sys­tems or set up representative committees through which grievances can be investigated and resolved as they come up; and monitor corporate practices to prevent possible EEO violations. Preparing and submitting EEO statistical reports is also an important part of their work.

Job analysts are sometimes also called compensation analysts. They study all of the jobs within an organiza­tion to determine job and worker requirements. Through observation and interviews with employees, they gather and analyze detailed information about job duties and the training and skills required. They write summaries describing each job, its specifications, and the possible route to advancement. Job analysts classify new positions as they are introduced and review existing jobs periodi­cally. These job descriptions, or position classifications, form a structure for hiring, training, evaluating, and pro­moting employees, as well as for establishing an equitable pay system.

Occupational analysts conduct technical research on job relationships, functions, and content; worker char­acteristics; and occupational trends. The results of their studies enable business, industry, and government to uti­lize the general workforce more effectively.

Developing and administering the pay system is the primary responsibility of the compensation manager. With the assistance of other specialists on the staff, com­pensation managers establish a wage scale designed to attract, retain, and motivate employees. A realistic and fair compensation program takes into consideration company policies, government regulations concerning minimum wages and overtime pay, rates currently being paid by similar firms and industries, and agreements with labor unions. The compensation manager is famil­iar with all these factors and uses them to determine the compensation package.

Training specialists prepare and conduct a wide vari­ety of education and training activities for both new and existing employees. Training specialists may work under the direction of an education and training man­ager. Training programs may cover such special areas as apprenticeship programs, sales techniques, health and safety practices, and retraining displaced workers. The methods chosen by training specialists for maximum effectiveness may include individual training, group instruction, lectures, demonstrations, meetings, or work­shops, using such teaching aids as handbooks, demon­stration models, multimedia programs, and reference works. These specialists also confer with management and supervisors to determine the needs for new training programs or revision of existing ones, maintain records of all training activities, and evaluate the success of the various programs and methods. Training instructors may work under the direction of an education and training manager. Coordinators of auxiliary personnel specialize in training nonprofessional nursing personnel in medi­cal facilities.

Training specialists may help individuals establish career development goals and set up a timetable in which to strengthen job-related skills and learn new ones. Sometimes this involves outside study paid for by the company or rotation to jobs in different departments of the organization. The extent of the training program and the responsibilities of the training specialists vary considerably, depending on the size of the firm and its organizational objectives.

Benefits programs for employees are handled by ben­efits managers or employee-welfare managers. The major part of such programs generally involves insurance and pension plans. Since the enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), reporting requirements have become a primary responsibility for personnel departments in large companies. The retire­ment program for state and local government employees is handled by retirement officers. In addition to regular health insurance and pension coverage, employee ben­efit packages have often grown to include such things as dental insurance, accidental death and disability insur­ance, automobile insurance, homeowner’s insurance, profit sharing and thrift/savings plans, and stock options. The expertise of benefits analysts and administrators is extremely important in designing and carrying out the complex programs. These specialists also develop and coordinate additional services related to employee wel­fare, such as car pools, child care, cafeterias and lunch­rooms, newsletters, annual physical exams, recreation and physical fitness programs, and counseling. Personal and financial counseling for employees close to retire­ment age is growing especially important.

In some cases—especially in smaller companies—the personnel department is responsible for administering the occupational safety and health programs. The trend, however, is toward establishing a separate safety depart­ment under the direction of a safety engineer, industrial hygienist, or other safety and health professionals.

Personnel departments may have access to resources outside the organization. For example, employer relations representatives promote the use of public employment services and programs among local employers. Employee-health maintenance program specialists help set up local government-funded programs among area employers to provide assistance in treating employees with alcoholism or behavioral medical problems.

In companies where employees are covered by union contracts, labor relations specialists form the link between union and management. Prior to negotiation of a collective-bargaining agreement, labor relations managers counsel management on their negotiating position and provide background information on the provisions of the current contract and the significance of the proposed changes. They also provide reference mate­rials and statistics pertaining to labor legislation, labor market conditions, prevailing union and management practices, wage and salary surveys, and employee benefit programs. This work requires that labor relations man­agers be familiar with sources of economic and wage data and have an extensive knowledge of labor law and col­lective-bargaining trends. In the actual negotiation, the employer is usually represented by the director of labor relations or another top-level official, but the members of the company’s labor relations staff play an important role throughout the negotiations.

Specialists in labor relations, or union-management relations, usually work for unionized organizations, helping company officials prepare for collective-bargain­ing sessions, participating in contract negotiations, and handling day-to-day labor relations matters. A large part of the work of labor relations specialists is analyzing and interpreting the contract for management and monitor­ing company practices to ensure their adherence to the terms. Of particular importance is the handling of griev­ance procedures. To investigate and settle grievances, these specialists arrange meetings between workers who raise a complaint, managers and supervisors, and a union representative. A grievance, for example, may concern seniority rights during a layoff. Labor relations disputes are sometimes investigated and resolved by professional conciliators or mediators. Labor relations work requires keeping up to date on developments in labor law, includ­ing arbitration decisions, and maintaining close contact with union officials.

Government personnel specialists do essentially the same work as their counterparts in business, except that they deal with public employees whose jobs are subject to civil service regulations. Much of government personnel work concentrates on job analysis, because civil service jobs are strictly classified as to entry requirements, duties, and wages. In response to the growing importance of training and career development in the public sector, however, an entire industry of educational and train­ing consultants has sprung up to provide similar ser­vices for public agencies. The increased union strength among government workers has resulted in a need for more highly trained labor relations specialists to handle negotiations, grievances, and arbitration cases on behalf of federal, state, and local agencies.

Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Career Requirements

High School

Labor Relations SpecialistTo prepare for a career as a personnel or labor relations specialist, you should take high school classes that will help prepare you for college. A solid background in the basics—math, science, and English—should be helpful in college-level work. You might especially focus on classes that will help you understand and communicate easily with people. Psychology, English, and speech classes are all good choices. Business classes can help you under­ stand the fundamental workings of the business world, which is also important. Finally, foreign language skills could prove very helpful, especially in areas where there are large numbers of people who speak a language other than English.

Postsecondary Training

High school graduates may start out as personnel clerks and advance to a professional position through expe­rience, but such situations are becoming rare. Most employers require personnel specialists and labor rela­tions specialists to have a college degree. After high school, Susan Eckerle attended a four-year college and received a bachelor’s degree in retail management, with a minor in psychology. She says that if she were starting over now, however, she would get a degree in human resources instead.

There is little agreement as to what type of undergrad­uate training is preferable for personnel and labor rela­tions work. Some employers favor college graduates who have majored in personnel administration or industrial and labor relations, while others prefer individuals with a general business background. Another opinion is that personnel specialists should have a well-rounded liberal arts education, with a degree in psychology, sociology, counseling, or education. A master’s degree in business administration is also considered suitable preparation. Students interested in personnel work with a govern­ment agency may find it an asset to have a degree in personnel administration, political science, or public administration.

Individuals preparing for a career as a personnel spe­cialist will benefit from a wide range of courses. Classes might include business administration, public adminis­tration, psychology, sociology, political science, and sta­tistics. For prospective labor relations specialists, valuable courses include labor law, collective bargaining, labor economics, labor history, and industrial psychology.

Work in labor relations may require graduate study in industrial or labor relations. While not required for entry-level jobs, a law degree is a must for those who conduct contract negotiations, and a combination of industrial relations courses and a law degree is espe­cially desirable. For a career as a professional arbitrator, a degree in industrial and labor relations, law, or person­nel management is required.

Certification or Licensing

Some organizations for human resources profession­als offer certification programs, which usually consist of a series of classes and a test. For example, the Inter­national Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans offers the certified employee benefits specialist designation to candidates who complete a series of college-level courses and pass exams on employee benefits plans. Though voluntary, certification is highly recommended and can improve chances for advancement.

Other Requirements

Personnel and labor relations specialists must be able to communicate effectively and clearly both in speech and in writing and deal comfortably and easily with people of different levels of education and experience. “You’ve got to be people oriented,” says Eckerle. “You have to love people and like working with them. That is huge.”

Objectivity and fair-mindedness are also necessary in this job, where you often need to consider matters from both the employee’s and the employer’s point of view. “Being the liaison between management and employees can put you in a tough spot sometimes,” Eckerle says. “You’re directly between the two poles, and you have to be able to work with both sides.”

These workers cooperate as part of a team; at the same time, they must be able to handle responsibility individu­ally. Eckerle says it is important to be organized because you are often responsible for tracking many different things regarding many different people. “You can’t be sloppy in your work habits, because you’re dealing with a lot of important information and it all has to be pro­cessed correctly,” she says.

Exploring Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Careers

If you enjoy working with others, you can find helpful experience in managing school teams, planning banquets or picnics, working in your dean’s or counselor’s office, or reading books about personnel practices in businesses. You might also contact and interview the personnel direc­tor of a local business to find out more about the day-to­day responsibilities of this job. Part-time and summer employment in firms that have a personnel department are very good ways to explore the personnel field. Large department stores usually have personnel departments and should not be overlooked as a source of temporary work.


Personnel specialists hold approximately 820,000 jobs, with close to 80 percent working in the private sector. Of those specialists who work in the private sector, 11 percent work in professional, scientific, and technical services, and 9 percent each worked in the following industries: manufacturing, health care and social assistance, finance and insurance firms, and administrative and support services. The government employs 17 percent of human resources managers and specialists. The companies that are most likely to hire personnel specialists are the larger ones, which have more employees to manage.

Starting out

Colleges and universities have placement counselors who can help graduates find employment. Also, large compa­nies often send recruiters to campuses looking for prom­ising job applicants. Otherwise, interested individuals may apply directly to local companies.

While still in high school, you may apply for entry-level jobs as personnel clerks and assistants. Private employment agencies and local offices of the state employment service are other possible sources for work. In addition, newspaper want ads often contain listings of many personnel jobs.

Beginners in personnel work are trained on the job or in formal training programs, where they learn how to classify jobs, interview applicants, or administer employee benefits. Then they are assigned to specialized areas in the personnel department. Some people enter the labor relations field after first gaining experience in general personnel work, but it is becoming more com­mon for qualified individuals to enter that field directly.


After trainees have mastered basic personnel tasks, they are assigned to specific areas in the department to gain specialized experience. In time, they may advance to supervisory positions or to manager of a major part of the personnel program, such as training, compensation, or EEO/affirmative action. Advancement may also be achieved by moving into a higher position in a smaller organization. A few experienced employees with excep­tional ability ultimately become top executives with titles such as director of personnel or director of labor rela­tions. As in most fields, employees with advanced edu­cation and a proven track record are the most likely to advance in human resources positions.


Jobs for personnel and labor relations specialists pay salaries that vary widely depending on the nature of the business and the size and location of the firm, as well as on the individual’s qualifications and experience.

According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an entry-level human resources specialist with a bachelor’s degree in human resources, including labor relations, earned $36,967 annually in 2005.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings of human resources managers were $84,190 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $49,820 to more than $139,600. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) reports that the average salary for human resources managers in the federal government was $87,430 in 2005. The OOH also reports the following 2005 median annual earnings for government workers by specialty: employee relations specialists, $84,847; labor relations specialists, $93,895; and employee development specialists, $80,958.

Work Environment

Personnel employees work under pleasant conditions in modern offices. Personnel specialists are seldom required to work more than 35 or 40 hours per week, although they may do so if they are developing a program or special proj­ect. The specific hours you work as a personnel specialist may depend upon which company you work for. “I work Monday through Friday,” says Susan Eckerle, “but if you work for a company that has weekend hours, you’ll prob­ably have to work some weekends too. If you never work weekends, you won’t know your employees.”

Labor relations specialists often work longer hours, especially when contract agreements are being prepared and negotiated. The difficult aspects of the work may involve firing people, taking disciplinary actions, or han­dling employee disputes.

Human Resources Professional and Labor Relations Specialist Careers Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) predicts that there will be faster than average growth through 2014 for human resources, training, and labor relations manag­ers and specialists. The USDL predicts especially strong growth for training and development specialists and employment, recruitment, and placement specialists.

Competition for jobs will continue to be strong, how­ever, as there will be an abundance of qualified appli­cants. Opportunities will be best in the private sector as businesses continue to increase their staffs as they begin to devote more resources to increasing employee pro­ductivity, retraining, safety, and benefits. Employment should also be strong with consulting firms that offer personnel services to business that cannot afford to have their own extensive staffs. As jobs change with new tech­nology, more employers will need training specialists to teach new skills. Personnel specialist jobs may be affected by the trend in corporate downsizing and restructuring.

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