5 tips for moving between industries as a project manager

The difficulties of moving between industries as a project manager is one of the most popular discussion topics at the monthly Southern Project Management Network events and is raised almost every time we get together. To be successful at delivering change, project managers have to possess a wide range of technical, leadership and soft skills. These same delivery skills are required regardless of industry, so why do project managers struggle to move outside of their current industry and what can they do about it?


It can help to consider why the hiring leader may be prioritising relevant industry experience and how this filters through to recruitment agencies and HR teams. Imagine you are responsible for a large project and have identified a need to bring in project management resources. Things are moving rapidly and the team is under resourced and under pressure. In this scenario you are likely to need to hire people who can join the team and ‘hit the ground running’.

You want people who know the industry acronyms, language, hot topics and challenges and who are likely to have benefitted from lessons they have learned in similar projects. When you hire in contract resources you are paying for the expertise they bring. You are not likely to want to have to train people or have long periods of time while they get up to speed so you clearly specify you need relevant industry experience.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a recruitment agent who has received a brief stating all the necessary skills and experience the client is looking for in their new hire, including industry background. Your reputation is built on your ability to give your clients exactly what they want so you filter through the CV’s you either already have or receive in response to the advert you place.

It’s easy to see how anyone looking to move industries is immediately locked out of this cycle.


So what can you do about this if you are interested in a project management role in a different industry?

Let’s face it, a quick read of Wikipedia is not going to cut it over real life experience in an interview so here are some practical tips you can try to increase your chances of landing your next role in an industry you haven’t worked in previously.


1. Network Network Network!

As a hiring leader reviewing a pile of CV’s you are really trying to get an idea of who the people are behind these and whether they will add value and fit in with your team. Good leaders are always looking out for good people so that they can do succession planning and have a list of potential candidates whom they can contact when vacancies come up in their team.

You can help them with this by finding ways of getting known at companies you would like to work for. Ideally you want to be on plenty of those lists so that people are contacting you about open positions. Start by making a list of the companies you are interested in and then do some digging into who you already know at those companies. If you have friends or acquaintances there, ask for introductions to leaders at the company who may be hiring in the future. If you don’t know anyone there, you can use LinkedIn to identify 2nd level connections and contact people at the company mentioning your mutual contact. Also find out if they are hosting any events and go along to see who you can meet.

By spending half an hour with someone over a coffee you have the opportunity to learn more about the company and importantly, to make a good impression. This can potentially lead to further introductions within the company or being invited to apply for a role when it is advertised. When your CV lands on their desk, they will already know the person behind the CV and will have a better understanding of who you are which will help you stand out from the crowd.


2. Improve your industry knowledge

I met a pm recently who was in the situation where a redundancy pay-out was enabling them to take a junior role pm in a different industry so that they could build that all important industry experience. This might be something few can do so think about creative ways you can build and demonstrate relevant experience. These might include joining a local industry organisation, subscribing to industry journals, and reading online articles. The more you understand, the more you will be able to quote relevant examples from your own career that will resonate with the person hiring.


3. Pro bono experience

Some companies may be open to you offering to do some pro bono volunteering with them so you can start building valuable experience. This can also open doors for you when opportunities arise within that company as you have already demonstrated the strength of your work.


4. Write a killer CV

If you haven’t had the chance to meet the hiring leader, your CV will be doing all the talking for you. This means it’s critical to make your CV shine. Arras People recently carried out a snapshot survey of how the CV’s which project management professionals involved in recruitment read on a daily basis make them feel. The results are surprising and important. 78% of CV’s don’t even raise a smile while only a tiny 1% can raise a broad grin. If the majority of CV’s are really that bad, by taking a fresh look at yours you can dramatically improve your chances of landing the job.

Lindsay Scott has shared 3 excellent and very practical webinars on creating your killer CV which you can access here. Lindsay also provides some advice and insights into why it isn’t a good idea to save your CV as a pdf file. And she also provides a great project management CV template.

Your CV also needs to be relevant. If you research the company and current industry challenges, you can then call out relevant examples of work you have completed that are similar to the work the hiring leader needs done. Be careful not to silo yourself by only positioning yourself as an expert in a particular niche if that is helpful for the role, include background that is translatable.


5. Get to know the recruiting agents

If you are using a job board to apply for roles, you might consider ways of standing out that go beyond having the best CV. Job boards attract hundreds of applicants for each role advertised so after you click on the ‘apply’ button – pick up the phone! Call the recruitment agent and tell them you’ve just applied for the role and talk them through your background and why you’re a great fit.

This could make the difference between being the candidate whose CV ends up on the hiring leaders desk versus the candidate whose CV never made it past the agency. Even if you aren’t perfect for this role, the agent may have other roles they are recruiting for which they then put you forward for.

Once you’ve been hired, it’s up to you to prove they made the right choice! You now have the opportunity to demonstrate your transferable knowledge and start to build credibility. I like these real life stories from project managers who changed industries in the PMI Today magazine. They talk about the steps they took to both demonstrate their value and to build their industry knowledge after they were hired.

Happy job hunting!


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