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Translating Government Skills to the Private Sector

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Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I have more than 25 years of HR experience and will soon retire from my government job at age 56. I want to continue working in the commercial world for the next few years, but I'm concerned about translating my skills for the private sector. All of my colleagues facing similar situations cite this as a major stumbling block.

This is one of the biggest challenges people experience when transferring from one industry to another, but it is particularly difficult when switching from the federal to the for-profit world.

Every industry works and communicates in a unique way defined by the products and services it delivers, the customers it serves, and the challenges this combination presents to the HR function.

Having experience within a target industry makes a job change inside that industry easier because you understand the industry's language and can demonstrate to interviewers that you understand the problems that need to be resolved.

You may think, "Oh the industry doesn't matter; the job is the same." That's true—to a degree. Imagine you are a manager at a for-profit company and you need to hire a new employee. You have two candidates who are very similar; the only real difference is that one candidate has worked in your industry in the for-profit sector and the other candidate comes from the federal government. As a manager, your success depends on making the right hiring decisions. You can't manage productively without first hiring effectively. The odds are heavily in favor of the candidate with relevant for-profit experience.

Choose Your Industry

First, choose a target industry for your job search. Think about your current experience and skill set. How could they support a specific industry?

Consider those industries that are either heavily regulated or do business with government, because your federal experience will become an asset that will help you stand out among applicants and ease your transition. Health care, for example, would be a logical choice: It's big, growing and has lots of federal regulations and oversight.

Connect with Peers

Now it's time to learn how your target industry functions and the language it uses to express its needs and skill applications. Study up on the industry to find the aspects that are similar to what you've already done and the aspects that are different. Find ways to show that while your day-to-day experience may have been different, your responsibilities and underlying skills are essentially the same.

Start to build a professional network of people working in your target industry. If you use LinkedIn, identify HR people working in that target industry who have already made a transition from the federal world. These are people who can give you real insight into how and why the industry works the way it does, the challenges it represents, and how to overcome them.

Write Your Resume

Your colleagues who cited "translating skills" as one of the biggest hurdles in making such a transition successfully are correct. This is where a top-notch resume can make the difference. Your resume is the most powerful tool you have to connect with potential employers.

Build a job-targeted resume that focuses on the skills and uses the language common to your target industry. Failure to do so is the most significant cause of your resume not being discovered in resume databases. This means getting far fewer, if any, interviews.

When you decide on a target industry or industry cluster and learn how and why this target industry operates the way it does, what's the same and what's different, where your credentials match and don't, as well as the variations in industry jargon, you are well on your way to developing an effective resume and communicating effectively during job interviews.

Compare a handful of job descriptions for your chosen job to identify commonalities and priorities. Use the keywords and skills cited in them to create your resume. Don't just recite your job history; instead, base your resume on the skills and experience you bring to the table, using the priorities and language that are relevant to the industry and familiar to the reader.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today!


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