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Why HR Generalists Aren’t on the Decline, at Least Not Yet

January 08, 2021 Leadership
Lance Haun Reworked contributing writer
By Lance Haun

HR generalists have been the lifeblood of many organization’s HR service strategy. A diverse group of generalists with a broad, flexible skillset paired alongside specialists who focus on specific business needs is a well-worn path for HR leaders. The right mix of adaptability and deep skill is a challenge that many organizations are always trying to balance. 

For years, the natural tension between specialization and generalization begged the question of whether generalists would soon have to find some sort of specialization path or risk becoming a rare commodity. As organizations manage their way through the pandemic, there’s some data emerging that indicates a shift in the way organizations are thinking about staffing their HR organizations.

Where Are All the Open HR Generalist Roles?

In job site Glassdoor’s research on the top workforce trends for 2021, the report measured jobs open in October 2019 versus October 2020, with an emphasis on popular jobs with at least 5,000 unique jobs in 2019. 

The report found a marked decrease in job openings in many of the areas you’d expect. For example, open event coordinator jobs are down 69%, chef jobs are down 56% and valet jobs are down by 51%. Those should be a shock to no one. 

In white collar roles, most of the cuts in open positions were in administration and sales roles. HR generalists saw one of the most dramatic cuts to back office staff: While there were over 5,000 jobs available on the platform in 2019, just a little over 3,300 were on the platform at the same time a year later. That decrease of 37% puts it in the top 20 jobs that Glassdoor classifies as likely to suffer most in 2021 due to COVID-19. 

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Temporary Blip or Long-Term Change?

While some of the jobs in Glassdoor’s list seem destined for some potential long-term disruption, many do not fit this bill. For example, audiologists had a dramatic 70% drop in open jobs from 2019 to 2020, making it the occupation with the sharpest decline of any measured. 

Yet, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows audiologists growing by 13% in the next decade. Did COVID-19 change audiology? Other than the fact that taking that hearing test seems like something that a person can put off in the midst of a global pandemic, the evidence suggests not. 

The same is true for many of the white collar positions listed. Accounts payable specialists, sales managers and account executives are easy to freeze hiring on and fill in the gaps with existing staff if you have a vacancy or need to downsize through the middle of an economic downturn. 

Past studies have shown that HR generalist roles are relatively durable through economic uncertainty. Even in cases where a company reduces headcount, the long-term role of HR isn’t diminished assuming those people are eventually hired elsewhere. 

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Generalizing or Specializing, There’s Room for Both 

As the HR Certification Institute points out, there are advantages to having skilled generalist HR staff that can take on a variety of challenges. In fact, pre-pandemic, Randstad research showed that HR generalists were in higher demand due to HR automation pushing HR colleagues to specialization. 

But specialists are needed as well. As a shared service function in larger organizations, being able to have specialized knowledge in compensation, diversity, analytics or transformation initiatives can offer a competitive advantage. 

Generalists also offer an advantage during business shifts or transformation: the ability to contribute in many different service capacities to the organization. Upskilling generalists to reduce skill gaps in areas like data and analytics means an organization has a more flexible HR function that can move with the business in a more nimble way. 

While the HR debate over generalists versus specialists won’t be coming to an end anytime soon, it’s clear that both will be needed for at least the near term. 

A Bump in the Road

That’s why it’s hard to read Glassdoor’s dire prediction for HR generalists as anything more than a pause in hiring in the midst of economic and health uncertainties. 

If, and that’s a big if, HR generalists disappear, it will be over a fundamental change in the business. Even in a remote-only, socially distanced near future, people still have challenges at work that an HR generalist is positioned to solve better than anyone. 

A permanent push to outsourcing? Truly distributed and self-managed teams? Those are more of a risk to the profession than even a large scale, business-disrupting pandemic.

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