Ask Annie

Overcoming the 'no industry experience' hurdle

October 18, 2013: 10:55 AM ET

Companies inundated with resumes often screen out anyone whose background is in a different business. Here's how to get past that.

Business growth and teamwork concept --- Image by © Laughing Stock/Corbis

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: A friend sent me your article about how more managers are moving to find jobs, which interested me because I'm about to move halfway across the country. My wife, who was unemployed for two-and-a-half years, got a fantastic job offer in a different city, so, now that we've finally sold our house, we're going.

Just one problem: Our destination is pretty much a one-industry town and, unfortunately, it's not my industry. I've put out some feelers with big employers there and I am getting the impression that lack of industry-specific experience is going to make it tough to get hired, even though I'm highly regarded in my field, which is finance and compliance. I know people do manage to move from one industry to another, but how do they do it? Any suggestions? -- Trailing Spouse

Dear T.S.: Just wondering, does your wife's new employer offer job-search assistance to so-called trailing spouses? A 2012 Atlas Van Lines survey found that more than half (56%) of big companies do, so it's certainly worth asking if you haven't already.

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Whether or not such help is available, there's no question you're facing a tricky hurdle here. "Ordinarily, people have a choice about where to move, so they try to be strategic about it and pick a place where there are likely to be lots of opportunities," says Amanda Augustine, resident job search expert at TheLadders. To help with that, data analysts at TheLadders have come up with a new map that shows where in the U.S. the competition for management jobs is most, and least, intense.

Although the choice has already been made for you, your lack of industry experience isn't insurmountable. Finding a job is just going to take a lot more focused effort than it would if you weren't making the switch. Augustine recommends a three-step approach:

1. Tap your network. Of course, every job seeker has to do this, but you need to cast the widest possible net. "Reach out to anyone you know on LinkedIn, or from your college fraternity or alumni association, or former vendors, clients, and colleagues," Augustine says. Don't discount relatives, neighbors, or anyone else you meet in your new city: "Even if they don't work in the industry you're trying to get into, you never know who they know."

While you're at it, you might speak with some of your wife's friends and professional acquaintances, too. "The goal is to find people with whom you can do informational interviews -- not asking for a job, but finding out as much as you can about what's happening in your target industry and where your skills might fit," says Augustine. If you can wow one or two of these folks with your talents, it may get you in the door: "Our research has shown that you're 10 times more likely to be hired without industry experience if you have a referral from someone on the inside who will be in your corner."

2. Research, research, research. "Often, you can sell your achievements based on what a given company is going through at the moment," says Augustine. "For instance, if a potential employer is doing a major restructuring, and you have experience with making that work, say so in your cover letter and, on your resume, emphasize your role in a similar restructuring. The point is to find common ground between your past successes and what an employer needs right now."

Obviously, figuring that out will take lots of detailed study -- online, in the trade press, on each company's website, and in public documents like annual reports. "Set up Google alerts for the company and for keywords that are important in the industry," Augustine suggests. "In your cover letter, and later in an interview, it makes a great impression if you can offer insightful comments and ask smart questions about current industry trends and things the company is doing."

Pay particular attention to each company's culture. "Often an employer's web page, their tweets, and even their Facebook page can give you a sense of their corporate personality and how they see themselves," notes Augustine. "It matters. In most interviews for management jobs, we've found, only about 20% of the discussion is centered on specific skills. The other 80% is all about how well you'll fit into the team and the overall culture."

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3. Be enthusiastic and willing to learn. "The right attitude can motivate a hiring manager to take a chance on a candidate despite lack of industry experience," says Augustine. "You want to emphasize that, although you do come from a different business, you've studied theirs thoroughly, and you're eager to keep learning more about it."

As with so many things, making this kind of jump gets easier the more times you do it. Augustine has seen some job candidates who have spent their whole careers hopping from one industry to another -- and who turn their adaptability into a selling point: "It's a little ironic, but people who have already made the leap from one industry to another a few times, and been successful at it, can point to that and say, 'I've adapted and added value in a different business before, and I'm looking forward to doing it again.'"

Good luck!

Talkback: Have you ever gotten hired in an industry where you had no previous experience? What helped you make the move? Leave a comment below.

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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).

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