Best Places to Start Your Human Resources Career

May 26, 2017

Human resources specialists are the unsung heroes of the HR world. Yes, the managers get all the credit (and take all the blame, if they’re any good.) But where the rubber meets the road, doing the grunt work of human resources and actually making things happen are the lower-level HR specialists. Many of them just recently out of college, in their 20s and early 30s, doing their best to meet their obligations to the company, pay down their own onerous student loans (with payments averaging over $200 per month, for those graduating college with student debt). and still make it to the occasional happy hour or concert.

First, let’s take a look at national data: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 482,000 individuals working as human resource specialists nationwide, earning a national median income of $28.45 per hour, or $59,180 per year. The field is growing at about 5 percent per year, and is expected to add about 22,000 jobs between 2014 and 2024 – indicating that the field is roughly growing in step with the broad economy. The bulk of the growth is expected to occur in the employment services industry, with increasingly complex benefits and compliance requirements driving the demand for expertise in human resources.

So if you’re looking to get started in the human resources field, where should you go?

The District of Columbia tops our list. First, ranked among states, the District of Columbia is the number one best paying market for HR specialists, with a mean hourly wage of $43.55 per hour, or $90,590 per year. That’s enough to make a living in or near D.C., though you probably won’t be able to rent a place of your own in the nicer neighborhoods around the city, like Arlington or Georgetown. You can get by. There are a lot of early-career HR workers in markets like San Francisco and New York who would have a harder time raising a family on that salary unless they were willing to commute a long way.

Furthermore, the District of Columbia has the highest density of HR specialists anywhere in the country, with the economy requiring 10 HR specialists per 1,000 employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only the Elizabethtown/Fort Knox area of Kentucky hires more HR specialists per 1,000 jobs, with 17.17 HR specialists per 1,000.

When you include the surrounding communities in Northern Virginia and Maryland, you still have 7.39 HR specialist positions per 1,000 jobs, making it far and away the biggest per capita market for HR professionals in the country. On average, the hourly mean (not median) wage for HR pros in the greater Washington D.C./Arlington/Alexandria metropolitan division is $40.46 per hour, or 84,160 per year.

San Francisco/Redwood City, California comes next, edging out even the formidable Silicon Valley market (San Jose, California) in both the annual mean wage metric and the jobs per 1,000 category. San Francisco area HR professionals earn a mean average of $44.03 per hour, or $91,590 per year, and account for 5.56 out of every 1,000 jobs in the area. HR specialists in San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara metro area, on the other hand, earn an average of $42.42 per hour, or $88,230 per year, according to BLS figures. The San Rafael, California metropolitan division, representing the North Bay area, posts very similar numbers for HR specialists: An average wage of $40.64 per hour, or $84,520 per year. However when you account for cost of living, traffic, transportation and quality of life issues, the workers who live outside of San Francisco itself may well have the edge.

Note that each of these San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan statistical areas  would have salary results skewed higher by a few high-paying employers in the area. Many smaller tech startups that incubate in the area may offer less in the way of cash compensation but more in stock or stock options, so for the few companies that really take off, HR professionals that position themselves well can even potentially become quite wealthy from stock. But the companies can also crash and burn, as well – and many have – leaving workers with little but memories and experience and hopefully wisdom for the next g0-round.

Don’t want to live in a big city? Then consider Los Alamos County, New Mexico. Though it’s a non-metro area, there is still plenty of HR hiring going on, with HR professionals accounting for 6.29 out of every 1,000 jobs – well above the average. Mean average wages for HR professionals in Los Alamos County, New Mexico come to $36.30 per hour or $75,510. Adjust for cost of living and these individuals are likely to be saving more money, contributing more to retirement, living in nicer homes and enjoying a better quality of life than their colleagues in the Bay Area and Washington, DC.

Consider: The Los Alamos Cost of Living Index, according to Better Places, is 111 (an index of 100 indicates the cost of living is exactly average for the United States. Want to rent a 2-bedroom apartment? Plan to pay $1,041 per month.

In San Francisco, that same 2-bedroom apartment will cost you $2,023 per month to rent (and you probably don’t have a parking spot!). Overall, the San Francisco Cost of Living Index is 272 – dwarfing that of the Los Alamos area.

Want the best of both worlds? High pay, with a beautiful environment and tons of recreational activities, but a cost of living that won’t have you tearing your sofa apart for spare change so you can get a cup of coffee? Try Boulder, Colorado (hint, it works best if you like skiing and you’ll probably want an SUV). The average HR specialist in Boulder earns $38.36 per hour, equating to $79,790. But Boulder’s cost of living, while pricier than Los Alamos County’s, is much lower than that of San Francisco, and yet it pays nearly as much. And with HR specialists accounting for 5.42 out of every 1,000 jobs in Boulder – well above the national average for HR specialists – there are lots of opportunities there and your skills are in high demand.

A 2 bedroom apartment in the Boulder Metro area will run you about $1,381, and the overall cost of living index is 178 – well above Los Alamos’s, but a fraction of the cost of living in San Francisco and its environs.

A few other considerations:

Got student loans? All things being equal, consider moving to the higher-paying areas. A $30,000 student loan balance is a lot of money if you’re making 35,000 per year. It’s a lot more manageable if you’re making $70,000 per year, assuming the cost of living isn’t consuming every penny of your paycheck. Inland cities like Boulder, Los Alamos, Denver, Dallas, Omaha and Atlanta provide a great balance of reasonably high pay and affordable prices compared to the tier 1 gateway cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. If your priority is to pay down debt, these may be the places to go. These are also great places to consider raising a family

If you have no debt, you have lots more options.

Alternatively, consider applying for work at companies that offer student loan repayment assistance as an employee benefit, such as STAPLES, Fidelity Investments, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Chegg, Natixis Global Asset Management, Nvidia, and hundreds of others.

For more information on state and local employment and compensation trends for entry-level and early-career human resources specialists, see this page from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.