Beyond the internship: how to gain experience in human resources

March 14, 2019

It’s a paradox most human resources professionals are familiar with.

With their hard-earned diplomas fresh in hand, new graduates eagerly venture out to find that first job in HR. What they quickly realize is that virtually every job posting requires a certain level of experience. But how does a college graduate gain experience when every job demands experience to get in the door?

The truth is this: as important as it is to receive a quality education from a respected college or university – and that is critical – experience is also important. But there is a path forward.

Many people considering a career in human resources are established professionals in other fields, adds Al Gorriaran, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, lead faculty with Capella’s Master of Science in Human Resource Management program. “These are talented professionals in their respective fields,” says Gorriaran. “They just need a pathway to professionalization beyond their formal education, which they may be able to find at their current employer.”

The Capella University Career Center has developed the following guide for aspiring HR professionals to help them gain marketable experience in the field:

Identify your career goals

Don’t just grab the first opportunity that you come across. Be intentional about finding the right opportunity by first identifying your career objective and goals. Ask yourself:

  • What specific areas of HR do you want to target (e.g., recruiting/staffing, training and development, employee relations, performance management)?
  • What skills or experience do you want to acquire?
  • What skills do you have to offer an organization?

It is important to do your research and understand which HR skills and positions are in demand. Spend time on websites like, SHRM and ATD to research your target jobs to gain a clear understanding about their responsibilities and qualifications.

Capitalize on your current job
You may not have to look far for that first experience in human resources. If you are already working, seek out opportunities within your current organization to build HR skills.

  • Find a stretch role: Ask an HR professional at your organization if you can take on a developmental role in their department either full or part-time. Provide a proposal that focuses on the value you can offer the business rather than solely focusing on how it would benefit you.
  • Volunteer in your current role: Offer to do HR-related tasks that align with your current role. These might include sitting in on interviews, assessing candidates, attending career fairs, or mentoring new employees and/or interns.
  • Facilitate lunch and learns: Lunch and learns provide an opportunity for employees to develop knowledge and network. They also serve as a way for you to build skills and experience as a facilitator or organizer.

Volunteer at a nonprofit or small business

Many nonprofit organizations or small businesses would be elated to receive pro-bono assistance from a skilled human resources professional. Seek out those opportunities to build skills and make connections through volunteering. Since many large for-profit organizations have restrictions surrounding volunteering, look for opportunities at nonprofits or small businesses.

  • Identify local organizations that align with your values.
  • Search for positions such as volunteer director, volunteer coordinator, or positions where you can recruit, train, mentor, or perform other HR-related tasks.  
  • Propose a remote solution if you have geographical limitations or if the employer lacks physical space to accommodate an on-site experience.
  • Explore volunteer positions via websites such as:, and
  • If you are currently working as a volunteer, adjust your role to more closely align with your interests in HR. For example, if you already volunteer at a soup kitchen serving meals consider moving into a volunteer coordinator role.

Get active in professional associations

Professional associations provide a great way to engage in professional development while also making connections in the human resources field. Actively engaging in these organizations will help you build marketable skills and experience. Even better, many of these professional organizations have discounted student member rates.

  • Research organizations and see if there are local chapters in your area. Some popular organizations include the Society for Human Resource Management and the Association for Talent Development.
  • Seek out opportunities to do the type of work that would close skill gaps, such as leading a committee, recruiting new members, or managing professional development activities and vendor relationships.

Formal internships

Formal internships may be an option if you are able to meet the time, pay, and location requirements.  Use the same strategies and techniques to search for an internship as you would if you were looking for a job. Many internships turn into full-time employment, so treat them with the same level of professionalism and dedication that you would any other role.

  • Identify internship opportunities through networking, internship-specific job boards, or employer websites.
  • Propose your own internship at organizations of interest. Leverage relationships with organizations you know.

The Capella UniversityCareer Centercounselors, resources, and tools help students and alumni manage their careers at every stage and move toward the careers they want.

Meet the expert

Al Gorriaran, DBA SHRM-SCP, SPHR

Dr. Gorriaran is a lead faculty member in the human resources department at Capella. He is a retired Army human resources officer and former HR officer in the Foreign Service with 27 years of work in human resources, workplace learning, and recruiting. He holds a DBA in HRM from Nova Southeastern University, an MBA from Webster University, an MPA from Troy University and an MISM from Keller Graduate School. Dr. Gorriaran has had work published in International Academy of Business and Public Administration Disciplines.


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