Tips for Industry Switchers

Committed to a change? Make yourself less of a gamble for recruiters.

If you’re a job seeker trying to break into a new industry or field, the odds are against you. The tight labor market allows hiring companies to set very specific criteria for job candidates, and that typically includes industry experience. For the executive recruiters who help companies find new candidates, anyone who doesn’t have that experience is a risk.

But steep odds don’t make changing industries impossible, and the high barrier of entry is not insurmountable, said executive recruiters who spoke to Ladders.

The No. 1 tip from all recruiters is to make it clear that you possess the skills required, regardless of the industry.

“I had a client who spent years in operations at a custom cardboard-box maker – basic corporate work – but he also took care of his mother, who had debilitating lung disease for 13 years,” said Irene Marshall, president of career-counseling agency Tools for Transition and a former recruiter at Robert Half International.

“He got a master’s in gerontology and on his resume, we listed all of that as qualifications for primary care of the elderly. And he brought with him deep experience in business as well.” He had no work experience in the industry, but his resume made it clear that he possessed the skills, she said.

Here are some other tips:

Be upfront. “Paint a picture of what you can do for (the recruiter),” said Carole Tomko, executive vice president and partner of the Woodmansee Group, an executive placement firm. “You have to make it really clear why they’re talking to you.”

Don’t drop your salary too much, said Marshall. If you decrease your salary from $100,000 to $50,000, it does more than harm your bank account; it makes you look desperate, which makes you an unattractive candidate, she said.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Given the weak economy and the decreased chances of landing a job in a new industry, try forming a consortium of people with complementary skills – IT, HR, finance, marketing — to handle contract work in the meantime and possibly start a business on the way, said Lynn Hazan of Chicago executive-search firm Lynn Hazan and Associates.

Don’t make your personal choice the employer’s problem. If you moved across country or left your previous industry to pursue a personal goal or care for a family member, great. But don’t mention it in the cover letter, Marshall said. The employer should focus on your qualifications, not your personal issues.

Have someone consult on your resume. Most people have no idea what their transferrable skills are or how to explain them Hazan said. Have someone interview you to help identify what your real skills and accomplishments are and explain them, as if to a stranger – that’s who it’s intended for. A certified professional resume writer is your best option.

Build a new network. Through social, professional or civic groups, find a way to get together with people in the industry you’re targeting, ask their advice and get their help, Tomko said. It’s the best way to make you stand out from the other candidates cramming their inboxes.

“You need someone to stop and pay attention,” she said. “So when someone says no one who’s been in distribution at Wal-Mart has anything to do with what we do at Scots Lawn, there’s someone who can say, ‘Actually he’s a great guy, and I’d like you to have a 15-minute conversation on the phone.’ Then that person has to be ready with the elevator speech to the person on the phone, whose day you’re interrupting, explaining what you can do for him.”