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When an industry’s job market crashes as hard as financial services has recently, top recruiters see a flood of applications from people eager to get out of a tight market and apply their skills in another.
It's a good tactic, and one that can enrich and extend your career, according to some veteran industry switchers. Switching industries tends to be easier for more junior people, career experts told TheLadders, and smoother for those who have moved from one industry to another throughout their careers than for those who have worked in only one market.
But it is doable, even for senior executives with a long history in one industry and even in a market in which employers are demanding very specific sets of skills, according to Robert Hawthorne, president of Hawthorne Executive Search, a member of TheLadders’ community of recruiters.
About a quarter to a third of the placements in which Hawthorne is involved will entail a client hiring someone who has little or no experience in the hiring manager's industry for an executive slot, Hawthorne said.
"I call it the best-athlete scenario," he said. "If you get a real star, someone with a legacy of accomplishment, who has a passion for what they do, I'll tell a company they should interview this person anyway."
"We have seen a lot of career changing over the past 18 months," according to Michael Neece, chief strategy officer of PongoResume, an automated resume-writing service, and InterviewMastery.com, a job-interview training site. "Upwards of 27 percent of our clients are either changing industries or coming back into the workforce after time away."
The recommendations of trusted recruiters (who may have worked with the same set of employers for years and are intimately familiar with the company's needs and culture) are incredibly important for targeting jobs at the very high end of the job market, according to “Sharon,” a member of TheLadders and former top-level marketing executive with Bear Stearns and other Wall Street companies who left her last job at an investment bank voluntarily in the spring.
"Retained recruiters will have a team for each industry,” Sharon said. “The person in financial services can come to a meeting with recruiters specializing in other areas and say, 'I have this great candidate in financial services who wants to make a change,' and pass that person along to the technology group” or other appropriate departments.
I Am the Product
But it's not necessary to get heroic assistance from an outside source or from one recruiter who's a particular fan to make the transition successfully, according to Clark Christensen, a career-long industry switcher who is currently chief financial officer of Atlanta-based PS Energy Group Inc.
"All other things being equal, the industry experience does help, but not so much that it trumps other factors and other skills," Christensen said. "You do have to sell to the business you're coming to that you have the skills that are necessary; and once you're in the business, you understand the industry more and get better at what you do.
"But early on I decided I was the product – that my skill sets and aptitudes and competencies were the product and that they could be applied in more than one industry," Christensen said.
Christensen, who started his accounting career as a consultant, moved into international auditing and accounting roles at Coca-Cola, headed up Coke's Moscow bottling operation and advanced to director level before deciding he'd rather live in the U.S. Since then he's been head of financial operations at retail-services company Miller Zell and chief financial officer of logistics at shipping-service company Global Link Logistics Inc.
Constantly marketing yourself – by taking part in local and national professional groups, networking with both old and new contacts as if you're always looking for a job, and keeping your resume fresh and available – is critical to broadening your career options and finding openings in industries outside your own experience, Christensen said.
Function Versus Industry
Unless you're in one of the core functions of an industry – an investment analyst at a brokerage, for example, or underwriter in insurance – it's not that hard to separate your job functions from the industry in which you work, PongoResume’s Neece said.
"Industry experience is highly overvalued," Neece said. "Someone could work in a core operation, but their personal core skill set is being a salesperson; when they're looking to make transitions from one industry to another, they're just looking for a way to do a similar thing in a different place."
It's also possible, Neece said, to freshen your career prospects by changing departments rather than changing employers or industries. "When I was at Fidelity, we had equity and fixed-income analysts who were tired of doing the same thing every day. One of the things people did was go into compliance, where they were charged with making sure the composition of portfolios they'd been building was in compliance with company policies. Or you could move from the trading floor to being a recruiter looking for other people with similar skills. Take baby steps instead of a big shift."
The key to making the move successfully is to not only inventory your own skills, but to package them so they're appropriate for the industry you're targeting, according to Cheryl Palmer, certified career coach and president of CallToCareer.com.
The only way to do that is to understand how the specific requirements of the industry you're targeting change the way you'd do your job, she said. Understanding an industry at that level isn't difficult but does require research, Palmer said, whether that means reading reports on hiring or outsourcing trends in the industry from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or taking a contact from that industry out to lunch to pick his or her brain about the job market.
"Employers don't want a long learning curve," Palmer said. "They want someone who can speak the lingo and hit the ground running. The trick is to convince them that you can contribute right away. So read trade journals, talk to insiders, and get a really good handle on what's going on in that industry and in that company in particular.
Another alternative is to become a pioneer within the same company rather than leaving to do innovative things, according to Josh Klenoff, leading career coach for TheLadders and president of JKCoaching.com.
"I had one client who didn't like the company he worked in but ended up pitching a new type of business to management and leading that himself. He was happier there than he would have been leaving for another job," Klenoff said. "One mistake people make early in their careers is that they cede management of themselves to their managers. But no manager will ever care as much about your career as you do yourself."
It's important to make a regular assessment of your job skills to keep tabs on how employable you are and think periodically about what direction you want your career to take, Palmer said. But it's critical to be able to do that analysis from a potential employer's point of view, not just your own.
"The right skill set is a good starting point, but you need to present yourself well on paper and articulate what you can do for the employer right off the bat in an interview setting," Palmer said.