Changing Jobs in HR: Does Industry Matter?

Andrew Deichler By Andrew Deichler March 8, 2021

​For human resource professionals who are currently in the job hunt, how much does industry matter? A skilled HR professional who works for a major construction company should, hypothetically, be able to assume the same position at a big-box retailer, right? The answer is a bit more complicated than that and hinges largely on an HR professional's particular skill set, knowledge and interests.    

Making a Switch

At a time when entire sectors like restaurants and hospitality are suffering, moving to a new industry might be a necessity. Changing jobs is always a little scary, especially during a pandemic and a recession, but not doing so might ultimately leave you unemployed.

By now, we have a pretty clear picture of which industries have been impacted the most during the pandemic. But even if your industry is "safe" right now, that doesn't mean it will always be. Every economic crisis is unique—just look at the differences between the effects of the Great Recession of 2007-09 and the current crisis—so HR professionals may find themselves needing to pivot to new sectors at some point in their careers.

However, networking is often the key to making a successful career move, and that can be difficult when you want to jump to a new industry. You may have many contacts that you've established in your current industry, through attending trade shows and other events. But those connections aren't likely to help if you're moving to a vastly different sector.

Additionally, many employers have trouble determining how an employee's skills can translate to a position they are trying to fill because they haven't fully determined what skills they are looking for. To help solve that issue, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) maintains a database of more than 1,000 job description templates.

Specialists and Generalists

According to Kyra Sutton, a faculty member at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., whether an HR professional is able to transition from one industry to another depends largely on the type of HR role he or she is going after. For example, an HR professional who has worked in a specialist role may have an easy time making the jump. "I think that knowledge that you have of figuring out bonus payouts or maybe doing executive compensation can easily transfer across industries," she said.

HR generalists also shouldn't have too much trouble if they want to make an industry change. However, they may not want to, depending on the stage in their career. Generalists in more-senior roles tend to move within the same industry, given that they often will have detailed knowledge of that industry. In contrast, less experienced generalists are less likely to have that knowledge and thus might be more willing to make a move to a new industry.

"Let's say you are an HR business partner or you're an HR vice president. What makes you successful and helps your interactions with senior leaders in the company is if you understand the business," Sutton said.

Already having that industry-level business acumen when stepping into a new role can also help an HR generalist earn a seat at the table with senior leadership faster. However, Sutton also stressed that there are a multitude of nuances that can impact job changes at the senior level—for example, internal relationships, employee brand, global exposure, desired pay—so it's entirely possible for these individuals to hop from one industry to the next.

Still, when an HR professional considers changing industries, it's important to look at things from a potential hiring manager's perspective. As bestselling author, career coach and former HR professional Martin Yate noted, if two people of comparable skill sets are competing for the same job but only one has experience in the industry, that candidate will likely have an edge.

Choosing an Industry

Given that industry experience can be such an important factor, should aspiring HR professionals who are still in school be looking to attach themselves to a particular industry? Should they think a few steps ahead and begin researching industries they might like to work in? Or would it be better to avoid focusing too much on industry so that they can potentially have an easier time changing industries in the future?

Students at Rutgers are pursuing roles where there is a need. In the current environment, generalist roles like HR coordinator and associate HR business partner are in high demand. "I would encourage students not to pursue specialist roles," Sutton said. "I think it's better first to be a generalist and then specialize later in your career. The first three to five years should be spent in generalist roles if there are job opportunities available."

As for industry, Sutton believes that young HR professionals who are pursuing their first jobs out of school should get their experience down first. Then, they can figure out if there is an industry they want to settle into.

"It depends upon where they are in their self-awareness journey," she said. "Those that are more self-aware might want to work in industry-specific or company-specific roles. But probably the majority really love HR and just want to go wherever they will be given a chance."



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