How to Change Industries in Project Management

People waiting for an interview
Waiting for an interview. Chris Ryan/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Project management is a highly transferable skill, so it’s common to find project managers wanting to check out other industries after spending some time working in one area.

And the good news, it’s highly possible. If you want to make the shift from running computer software projects to launching insurance products or working in green manufacturing, you can. Core project management skills like tracking your project, running successful project meetings, and risk management are the same regardless of your industry.

Why Change Industries?

There are lots of reasons why you might want to change industries. The most obvious one is that you have lost your job and are looking for a new one, and don’t want to restrict yourself to only vacancies in your past industry.

You also might want a new challenge. Moving from one industry to another is a great way to gain experience and exposure to other ways of working, products and environments.

This is a more common reason to change industries than you might think. A 2015 global survey by LinkedIn says that 21 percent of Millennials — those aged 18-35 — switch jobs because they are interested in trying out a new industry. It’s 11 percent for those aged 36-50. The door isn’t closed for Baby Boomers either: 7 percent of them report changing jobs for the opportunity to test out another industry.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your own industry is on the decline and you want to make the jump now.

Or perhaps your company isn’t performing as well as it could and you’re worried about the future stability of your current role. Changing industries is also a way to get paid more as a project manager.

Whatever your reason for looking for a new career in project management, you can put your skills to use in a new (for you) industry.

Project management in the IT industry is different from construction project management or project management in healthcare, but not because the project management core skills are different. If you are seriously committed to changing industries you can definitely make the switch. Here are some things you can do to help you succeed in a new career industry.

Ask Questions

First, you’ll want to find out as much as you can about your new or target industry. Whether it’s your first day in a manufacturing firm or you are just testing the waters with your contacts in retail to find out if you’d like a role there, ask questions.

Keep a note of the answers that you receive from your expert contacts. You can turn these into process maps or crib sheets. These will help you at interview and in your first few weeks in a new role. The more you know about what you are getting into, the more confident you will feel.

Take Classes

Joining a new industry is easier if you can prove to a recruiter that you are seriously interested in it. Taking classes is one of the ways that you can do that. There are plenty of short online courses that you can take without investing a lot of money. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a good place to start as these are free and often run by universities with fantastic reputations.

Once you have joined a company in a new industry, see what classes they can offer you too. Consider internal and external courses. The faster you get confident with the subject matter and details about the industry and how the company works, the faster you’ll feel like you are really making a difference. Then you can get on and enjoy your new career!

Many industries have professional bodies that offer introductory certificates in the subject matter. As a project manager you won’t need to know the ins and outs of insurance legislation or how to sell insurance products, but you might benefit from an introductory certificate in the industry basics as this will cover all the terminology you are likely to come across on those projects.

Generally, all the options open to you that you used when you studied to become a project manager are open to you studying about a new industry.

Network

Meet up with people in your target industry, or the one you have just joined. Your new employer might have professional or informal networking opportunities, or look at what is available locally to you.

This is an easy way to make new connections in your new or target industry and ask the questions that you might not want to ask your employer!

Get a Mentor

A mentor is someone you can talk to informally. They generally have a lot of experience in their field and are prepared to share that with you. Getting a mentor when you join a new industry is a good way to quickly tap into a wealth of experience that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you.

Having someone at the end of the phone or instant message software can give you confidence when you want to ask a quick question or gain clarity on a particular element of your project.

In fact, mentors are valuable in all areas of professional project management life: regardless of your career path, it’s good to invest in a mentor relationship if you can!

Join Professional Groups

It’s likely that your industry has a professional group of its own (probably the body that administers and regulates the industry qualifications). Join. Even if all you do is read the organization’s magazine, it will help you stay up-to-date with the challenges of the industry and boost your knowledge.

Professional groups also have networking opportunities. Check out their online forums if you can’t make it to any of the events in person. Often conferences or seminars are recorded and the videos made available for members for free.

Read Voraciously

Read everything you can about your industry. Specifically, the areas related to the first projects you are working on for your new employer. This will help you make a bigger contribution more quickly.

3 Things to Watch Out for When Changing Industries

Project management is project management, right? Yes, but once you are in a different industry there are some quirks to be aware of. It can be severely career limiting to go into a new commercial organization and assume that you know everything just because you have 20 years of experience in non-profits.

Be aware of what might be subtly different and this will help you transition to your new industry more quickly, and with less friction! Here are 3 things to watch out for.

1. Industry Jargon

This is the main barrier to switching industries smoothly. Even acronyms that you have used for years might mean something else in your company. Keep a running glossary of terms that you have heard and add the explanations. Note down jargon in meetings and then check your understanding later.

People will be happy to help clarify what terms mean if you ask them, so ask. It can save a lot of embarrassment. Just remember to update your personal glossary so you don’t ask the same question several times because you’ve forgotten. There can be a lot of new languages to take in when you first start out so set yourself up a document to capture it — something that you can look back on when you need it.

2. The Market

Different industries have different competitive pressures. Where time to market might be paramount when building smartphone apps, a quality outcome (even if that means taking a little longer) might be more appropriate elsewhere.

The challenges facing healthcare are not the same as those in oil and gas, and the professional services industry is going to look very different to your previous experience running government projects.

Research is your friend. Build your strategic perspective on the industry as quickly as you can. All the networking, questions and professional ready that you are doing will set you up well to quickly adapt to the new pressures of a different industry.

3. Different Practices

Your ‘old’ project management processes might not travel as well as you had hoped so be prepared to tweak them for your new environment. For example, health and safety might be front of mind for engineering and construction, but shift to a low-risk office environment for an insurance firm and you probably won’t find dedicated health and safety plans for every project.

IT security is crucial, but when you aren’t dealing with ransomware threats, your new company’s approach to security could well be structured differently.

Your team might be set up in a different project organization structure — one that perhaps you aren’t as used to.

Equally, may need to make the shift to Agile project management or vice versa.

Be open to the different project management practices that you might find in your new industry. You can quickly adapt to them once you know what is expected of you.

Finally, don’t hesitate to (tactfully) suggest ways that existing practices could be changed. It is likely that you were recruited from outside their industry partly to bring new insights and a fresh pair of eyes to some of the project management processes that they are currently working with. You’ll soon work out if your boss isn’t prepared to listen to your ideas!

Careers in project management transfer easily because you have a lot of the skills that will help you be a success in your new roles. Communication skills, for example, are the same whichever industry you work in.

However, you’ll need to use your initiative to make a success of switching to a new industry. Remember, even your dream project management job has its highs and lows. Plan your career switch, build your skills during those first months in a new industry and hopefully you’ll have fewer lows than highs. You’ll grow your confidence knowing that switching industries was the best career move for you.