An Interview With George P. Salerno, Human Resources Professional, Entrepreneur, and Corporate Vice President

by Nancy Solomon
An Interview With George P. Salerno, Human Resources Professional, Entrepreneur, and Corporate Vice President

George Salerno's dad was a bookbinder and an active labor union leader, so it's not surprising that he went into labor negotiations. What is surprising, however, is that he chose to represent management.

His professional interest in the field was sparked by undergraduate labor economics courses at Syracuse University. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1960, served in the military and got his master's degree from the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois in 1966.

Mr. Salerno went to work as a human resources manager, gaining skills in compensation, benefits and labor relations administration. Seven years later, he achieved his professional goal when he became the chief labor negotiator for a large, publicly-traded chemical company.

During the next 20 years, he worked as a labor negotiator for a variety of companies and public institutions. Then, in 1986, he founded his own human resources management services company. In 1996, he became the vice president of a new company, and then retired in 2002.

"I never hired anyone because they want to be in HR because they like people," said Mr. Salerno. "I think that's the wrong reason. You need to respect other people and be passionate about being a good professional. The key to success in human resources is the ability to be an experienced, knowledgeable, respected problem solver."

 

George Salerno & His Career

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

There isn't one particular person who inspired my career. The personal goals and targets I set for myself motivated me.

What has been your personal key to success?

A happy and balanced home life, a supportive wife and never forgetting where I came from - that my father had been a union man on the opposite side of the table and that he had been an activist to support his family.

On the job - being honest, ethical and straightforward with colleagues and adversaries alike were the keys to my success in labor and business dealings. It also didn't hurt to have a lot of common sense.

How has your career unfolded?

In 1986, I left the corporate world to start my own human resources management services company, which I successfully grew and operated over the next 10 years. It was the right decision at the right time. Organized labor was on the decline, labor laws were changing and collective bargaining was becoming more litigious - pushing out non- lawyer practitioners, like me. Labor relations was becoming primarily an arena for attorneys. As it turns out, HR outsourcing was in its infancy at that time, and my new company was on the forefront of this change.

Operating my own company gave me a great deal of latitude. I was able to venture into new avenues of business. For example, I was able to help other people start businesses and support them professionally.

One of those ventures turned out to be the start up of a new high tech services company. I became the corporate vice president for mergers, administration and human resources for this new company in 1996. We took it public and it's listed on the New York Stock Exchange. I was able to retire in 2002.

What awards and/or successes have you had? How important have they been to you, personally and to your career?

Professional respect and financial awards are, in my judgment, the proper measures of your success. To that end, I've had a great deal of success.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I retired in 2002, so I don't have any professional goals. However, I now give back to my community by being active in charity and volunteering in support of meaningful causes.

Why did you change careers?

Our society, economy, and even our lives change on a daily basis. It doesn't matter what profession you're in, you should always make sure you're on the cutting edge. But sometimes the profession itself is caught up in change. Sometimes professions become obsolete or take a dramatic turn in character. In my case, I could see that being a professional in labor relations was moving from non-legal practitioners to lawyers. I was not a lawyer, so I decided to move on.

What was the worst and/or best professional experience you've ever had?

The worst was in 1967. I was a young labor relations practitioner at the time. I had to help integrate a multi-racial plant in accordance with the new civil rights act. Some employees who disagreed with integration tried to kill me. Twice.

The best was when I was so successful in negotiating a labor agreement that I had to find an excuse to give the employees a raise after the contract was signed because their leadership had been so bad and they had settled for too little.

What have you loved about your career?

As a labor negotiator, I loved the challenge of conflict resolution, problem solving, and the corporate responsibility. As an entrepreneur, I loved the challenge of building a company, problem solving and gaining the respect of clients when they benefited by my professional skills. As the corporate vice president of mergers, administration and human resources, I loved the responsibility, problem solving, and the challenge of building a company. And throughout it all, I also loved the money.

 

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education.

I received a bachelor of arts in economics from Syracuse University in 1960. I received a master of arts from the Institute of Labor and industrial Relations at the University of Illinois in 1966.

Do you have to be licensed and/or credentialed?

You should strive to get an accredited credential from the Society of Human Resource Management. I didn't, but my experience and accomplishments helped overcome that deficiency.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school (or get professional training)?

You should always seek professional training and continue to educate yourself in the profession you have chosen. It will also help identify the changes that are happening to your profession.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

That the school is accredited; that it has a strong department in the area you have chosen, and that there are companies interested in hiring their graduates.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments, or programs for your profession?

Most schools teach human resources and related professions. There are, however, some graduate schools that stand out - Cornell University School of Industrial Relations, University of Illinois Institute of Labor and industrial Relations, and the University of Wisconsin.

When's the best time pursue a graduate degree?

Attend graduate school when you've had at least three years of experience in the profession and have a record of accomplishments.

The Actual Work

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? What's your favorite gadget?

In recent years, a desktop and laptop computer became essential in virtually every aspect of my processional dealings.

What professional organizations are you a member of? What are the other professional organizations?

I have been a member of the Society for Human Resource Management. Depending on the industry I worked for, I usually participated in the respective trade association as a representative of my company and profession.

What are some common myths about your profession?

I can't speak to any myths, but I can say that HR does not generally command the same level of respect within an organization as other disciplines (i.e., finance, marketing, etc.). However, it is the professional who leads HR that can make the difference in the level of respect and power HR has within each company or organization.

How do you use computers? Are there specialty software programs for your profession? If so, what are they and what do they do?

In recent years, HR computer systems have become essential tools for companies and HR professionals. The more sophisticated the HR systems are - especially its links within financial systems - the more important the role of HR becomes within the organization.

 

Job Information & Advice

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

This is a very difficult question. First, salary is based on the skill set of the professional. For example, compensation professionals generally earn more than recruiters. But salary also depends on the size of the company, the nature of the work performed by a company (i.e., services, manufacturing, transportation, etc.), and, most important, the role HR has carved out for itself in company decision-making. In a nutshell, HR is not a high-paying profession until you reach a very high level or you have a particular skill that is critical to a company's survival.

What are the best ways to get a job?

Be willing to take a job in your chosen profession that nobody wants, is difficult, and requires a sacrifice. When you have the job, be exceptional and deliver results.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It makes a difference in some instances.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in your profession?

Today, there are a lot of low paying, entry-level jobs because there are so many people that want to enter the profession.

Does working for a prestigious organization make a difference?

Absolutely. If you start out and progress in just about any Fortune 1000 company, and if you learn and are able to articulate your successes, you will progress in the profession. You cannot become a leader in the profession if you don't get a strong grounding of skills and have a record of accomplishments.

 

In Closing

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about your profession to be successful?

In my case, no. Passion has no place in labor relations, but respecting other people does. Much of my career involved very, very, very nasty work that overshadowed many of the great experiences and adventures I also enjoyed because of my work.

Because of my extensive labor relations experiences, I became an expert in downsizing and closing plants, companies and even educational institutions. As it turns out, those opportunities were very lucrative, but the work was very nasty.

However, I would also say that one should be passionate about being a good professional. The key to success in human resources is the ability to be an experienced, knowledgeable, respected problem solver. By the way, I've never hired anyone that told me they want to be in HR because they like people. I think that is the wrong reason to be in the profession.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with George Salerno personally about this interview, send an email to njaco@sbcglobal.net.

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