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How do I escape the secretary zone?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I graduated with a BBA in Management in 2008 with a dream of becoming an Evil HR Lady like yourself. For the past 3 years I've been a legal secretary, and then spent several months as a secretary at a hospital. All this time I've been applying to HR jobs in the area citing my degree and any relevant work I've done (I have some experience with doing payroll, office management, and training). Obviously I haven't gotten any of them, or I wouldn't be writing; even a part-time HR position at a local plant which has been listed on their website for half of this year.

I'm currently unemployed and I'm afraid I'm already stuck in the secretary zone, forever managing self-important peoples' calendars and making PowerPoints that no one ever looks at. I've had one interview for an HR position out of all that I've applied to, and I was runner up to someone who had some experience.

Most of the jobs I apply to require at least 3 years of experience in HR. How do I break into this field? What kind of job precedes HR Generalist? How do I get experience if every job requires experience? Friends suggest hounding companies I want to work for with resumes and cover letters every single day. Is bugging someone to death the way to do it?

Noooo!!!!!! Don't bug people. People don't like to be bugged. And repeatedly sending resumes and cover letters -- even electronically -- gets you put on the do not hire list. People don't hire you so that you'll go away. They hire you so you'll stay. You want people to like you. That's how you get hired.

Now, there is always some story about somebody who painted their face in the school colors for the CEO's university and followed him around until the CEO finally gave this yahoo a job. Fine. You're not that person. You're normal.

What job precedes HR Generalist? Very good question, that there isn't any set answer for. But, I am determined to be helpful, so I went to LinkedIn and went through my list of HR connections (of which I have a lot), and looked at their history. I listed the jobs people had before making their jump into HR. I only did the first 15 people. (I had to exclude people whose entire list of jobs were HR ones and weren't directly out of school for the first job. Because I know they did something before becoming Sr. Director, Employee Relations.) Here's the list:

--HR Trainee

--Undergrad degree (4)

--Social Worker

--Administrative Assistant

--IT Consultant


--Machine Operator

--Casino Finance Control

--Business Consultant

--Sales and Marketing Coordinator

--HR Intern

--Legal Assistant

You can see there is not one clear path to HR Glory. The job I held before entering the HR world? I taught LSAT and SAT prep courses for Kaplan. Aweome job, by the way. And totally helped prepare me for the training I would do later in human resources.

My point is, don't fret too much about the fact that you've been in admin roles. It's possible to get into HR from just about everywhere. But, as long as you see your secretarial work as supporting "self-important people" you'll have trouble breaking into any exempt level job, let alone an HR one. Being a good administrative assistant is a hard job. And, if you are good at it, it can pay very well. I know admins that make more than $75,000 a year. Many exempt level employees would love to take home that kind of salary.

You're discounting your experience and it's coming through in interviews. If you're negative about your past roles, it doesn't make people anxious to hire you for future roles, especially ones that require a lot of interaction with people. Because a lot of entry level HR jobs require that coordination that you did as an admin, as well as people skills up the wazoo. If you come into an interview with a chip on your shoulder about dealing with "self-important" people, you won't get hired. People in HR deal with all levels of the company. My very first exempt level HR job had me in one-on-one meetings with the CEO of a 30,000 person company. (I was doing a special project for him.)

My advice? Be proud of the work you've done as a secretary, but take that word out of your vocabulary, as most people prefer administrative assistant. (Unless it was your actual title in a previous job.) Increase your networking. Don't worry about the part time job at the local plant. If it's been posted for 6 months, they aren't serious about hiring.

If your next job does happen to be as an administrative assistant, take the power point creation assignments seriously. Ask to be included in the meeting where the presentation is given. Volunteer to be on cross-departmental committees. Volunteer to attend a meeting and take notes or write on the white board. This gives you visibility and an idea of what is going on in the company. You're only trapped if you don't stick your neck out every once in a while.

There's no magic ticket to career success. Consider applying at a temp agency and asking if they have any positions open in HR departments. Wherever you go, make sure you are learning. The best HR people (in my opinion) make every effort to understand the business, not just their defined role.

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