Ask Annie

Can you find a new job in a different industry?

December 20, 2012: 12:39 PM ET

Most managers have more transferable skills than they may realize, but overcoming a lack of industry experience can be tough. Here's how you can do it.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I've been in my current job as an e-commerce manager since 2006, and lately I've been growing more and more unhappy with it. For one thing, I don't like the boss who took over my division last year. For another, growth in my industry has stagnated in recent years and doesn't seem likely to pick up again anytime soon, so, although I've accomplished a lot here, it feels a little like polishing the decks on the Titanic.

I'd like to look for work in a different business -- maybe health care or high tech, since I keep hearing they're the hottest fields now. But will my lack of industry-specific experience hold me back? Do you have any suggestions on how to make this kind of move? — New Year, New Career

Dear NYNC: You're right, health care and high tech are booming, which means they'll be doing the most hiring in the year ahead. Three other hotbeds of hiring now, according to a recent survey of recruiters by career network ExecuNet, are life sciences (including pharmaceuticals and biotech), manufacturing, and energy and utility companies.

What's more, even in this iffy job market, it's clearly possible to jump from one industry to another. Slightly more than 40% of laid off employees who found new jobs in the first nine months of 2012 now work in industries different from the ones where they lost their jobs, reports talent development and outplacement firm Right Management. That statistic has barely budged since 2010.

MORE: How the biz world took a page from the CIA

Even so, hiring managers struggling with floods of applications are often looking for reasons to rule out candidates, and lack of industry experience can knock you out of the running before the interview stage -- unless you put some extra effort into selling yourself. "Most people do have skills that can transfer fairly easily from one industry to another," says Ann Fastiggi. "But it's up to you to clearly spell out to prospective employers why they should consider hiring you. You have to lead them to water."

Fastiggi, a managing director of New York City-based headhunters Herbert Mines Associates, has frequently steered senior managers across industry lines. One example: Fastiggi recruited Frits Paaschen, current CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts (HOT), from his old job as president and COO of Coors Brewing Co.

You may be encouraged to hear that you have a bit of a head start since, according to Fastiggi, "e-commerce skills and experience tend to travel well." Beyond that, she offers these five suggestions for making your move:

1. Think hard about why you want to change industries. "Often people think they want to make a big career change because of a problem in their current job that could get better in a year or two," Fastiggi observes. Take your feelings about your boss, for instance. Since plenty of research shows that senior managers change positions every two years, on average, one option would be to simply wait it out (and hope your next boss will be an improvement from your current one).

If, on the other hand, you truly believe you've done everything you can at this company, and you see challenges in another industry that interest you, and where you think you could add real value, be prepared to discuss those in detail -- which brings us to step No. 2.

2. Research potential employers thoroughly. This is important in any job hunt, but when you're trying to break into a new field, it can make or break you. "You need to know everything you possibly can about what's going on in the industry and at each company where you apply," says Fastiggi. "Think about the business challenges facing employers and exactly where you would be able to add value. It's surprising how many people don't do this."

MORE: The dumbest interview questions of 2012

Once you have a clear idea of where your talents and experience would fit, craft each resume -- a different one for each employer -- and cover letter to emphasize why they need you.

3. Talk to people who already work in your chosen industry. Tap your network, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, to contact a few people who are currently doing the kind of work you want to do. Find out how (or whether) your skills and proclivities match up with theirs.

"You might even consider asking if you can 'shadow' someone for a few hours, just to see firsthand what their average work day is like," Fastiggi says. "This can be a real eye-opener. Some industries sound more interesting or glamorous than they really are."

4. Show enthusiasm. "Energy and hunger go a long way," Fastiggi notes. "Interviewers want to see that you have the enthusiasm and stamina to do what it will take to make this change. You really need to be genuinely excited about the opportunity." With any luck, your optimism will be contagious.

5. Ask the right questions. "At the second or third interview stage, where they're getting close to making you an offer, it's smart to ask a prospective employer what kind of track record they have at bringing people in from other industries," Fastiggi says. "Ask what the usual onboarding process is. If there isn't one, they will expect you to 'hit the ground running.'"

MORE: Pay raises are back, finally, but skimpy

By contrast, she adds, "the best situation is one where you'll have a chance to spend some time getting to know the company and its operations before you start making changes -- as opposed to being expected to work miracles right away." Having some idea of how much pressure you'll be under from the get-go, and whether you can handle it, will help you choose the most promising offer if (here's hoping) you get more than one.

Happy hunting!

Talkback: Have you ever moved from one industry to another? What helped you most? If you're a hiring manager, what would persuade you to take a chance on someone with no experience in your industry? Leave a comment below.

Join the Conversation
About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

Email Anne
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.