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Agents of change: The new HR professionals

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Remember the time when the human resources (HR) depart-ment was simply called “personnel?” When it conjured images of staff wearily rifling through tons of paper to process new hires and vacation leaves?

Today, that department still does those things and much more. HR has evolved into something more dynamic in the last 20 years that it is “no longer static or transactional in nature,” according to Andre Latour, national director of staff relations at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). “Human resources people are helping manage change to ensure the success of companies.”

Human resources now encompass a number of areas, said Latour, who is also president-elect of Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (HRPAO), a not-for-profit group focusing on innovations, ideas and issues involving human resource management.

“You can now push more elements that go beyond recruitment and compensation,” Latour said. “Today you can deal with issues like manpower planning, pension, staff development and training, and occupational health and safety, among others.”

Munir Noormohamed, business co-ordinator of George Brown College’s Centre for Continuous Learning, agreed. “HR positions in the past could have been viewed as a function of payroll, but now extends itself to working with senior management in developing strategies for growth.”

HR has also been there to help companies deal with changes required by new legislation such as those involving issues of equity and human rights.

“The function and profession, per se, has been highlighted since human resources professionals now take charge of changes and succession,” Latour said. “They have had to re-orient themselves. It has evolved so that they are now seen as change agents or consultants.” It is, Latour added, “an exciting time and it’s not going to end.”

Indeed, the field has widened so much that human resources is now considered one of the “hot” careers to pursue in Canada. The employment opportunities for new graduates and those who have pursued continuing education in the field are many. Graduates can become personnel administrators, human resource managers and consultants, industrial relations officers, personnel managers, union representatives, management trainees and recruitment specialists, among others.

“As people get more experience with other employees, they can get involved in specific duties like manpower planning; they can specialize in one or more areas. But you can also be a generalist,” Latour said.

Latour’s career path itself illustrates the changes that have taken place in human resources.

“I started in the recruitment environment, working for government’s employer service department,” he recalled. “It had me visiting employers to find out what their manpower requirements are. It got me involved with people who were looking for work.”

Pretty soon he became involved in placement and recruitment of personnel. He worked in other jobs, becoming vice-president of a multinational corporation at one point before assuming his current focus — staff and labour relations for RCMP, where he directs a national program involving 20,000 people.

Colleges and universities throughout the country have responded to the increasing demand for highly trained and innovative human resources professionals. Aside from undergraduate courses, more and more academic institutions are offering programs like the human resource management post-degree/diploma certificate, which prepare graduates for the comprehensive provincial exams to obtain the certified human resources professional designation granted by the HRPAO.

As Toronto’s George Brown College explains on its website, the program “assists those already working in human resources administration to expand or update their skills; it provides intensive and extensive labour-management studies encompassing many areas of employment law.”

With the passage of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, Latour said that by 2010, a university degree will be required for those wishing to become certified human resources professionals (CHRPs).

Becoming a CHRP, now a nationally recognized designation, helps you to “meet professional challenges, communicate and showcase your professionalism, plan a career path, compete for human resources positions in the marketplace, (and) share your ideas, information and network with your peers,” Noormohamed said.

Latour said that while anyone can train to become a human resources professional, certain types of people tend to do well in the field. These include those who “have an open mind and no preconceived ideas; those who like to get into resolution of conflicts and are equipped with problem-solving skills.”

Human resources “is not like mathematics where the answer to a problem is always the same,” Latour said. “Here, problems that exist between people are always unique, so you have to be a good facilitator and mediator.”

According to Noormohamed, “as with any student considering a new career, they should ask themselves where their interests lie, what their values are and where their strengths are.”

He said that those who choose to pursue a career in HR “should be those who like to improve the working experience of an organization’s employees; it’s not something to consider simply because one enjoys working with people. The HR role may also play a role in strategic development.”

To stay abreast of developments in the field, Latour said he finds it helpful to join the HRPAO.

“The HRPAO is a great tool for knowledge and information; you know that there are professionals who can give you advice when you need it. It also provides great opportunities for networking.”

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