Your Career Q&A: Worried Your Skills Won’t Transfer Well?

By Martin Yate Jun 27, 2017
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Want to make the jump from government HR to the private sector? Study your chosen industry and show how your skills align with what's needed to do the job. 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 30 years of federal HR experience and will retire from the government at age 56. I want to stay employed in my career field but worry my skills don't translate well into the private sector. I have three years to go before retirement. What should I do now to prepare for that next step?

Your question shows a great deal of awareness and forethought. You are actively managing your career, thinking about where you want to be in the future, looking for the stumbling blocks that can get in the way and allowing the time to do whatever is necessary to overcome them.

Your question is not about job change—moving from one job to another similar job in the same industry—nor is it a career change—moving from one job and industry to a different job in another industry. This is a career segue question: switching from one job in a specific industry to a similar job in different industry. Each transition presents its own set of challenges.

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 that businesses must deal with effectively to be profitable. Having experience within an industry makes job change easier because you understand the language and "the way we do things."

The candidate's level of understanding about how an industry works is a major consideration in the selection process. You may think, "Oh, the industry doesn't matter; the job is the same." That's true to a degree, but imagine yourself on the other side of the desk making the hiring decision. You have two candidates who each have the same skills and experience; the only difference between the two is that one candidate has these skills and experience in your industry, while the other candidate acquired the skills in another industry. As a manager, where part of your survival depends on making the right hiring decisions, the choice you'd make is obvious.

Pick Your Target Industry

The problem may not be translating your skills from federal HR to the private sector, assuming you target a job for which you bring all the needed qualifications to the table. It is showing that you understand how the industry functions and that you know how to apply your skills to execute your duties efficiently.

It would be smart to research and decide on a target industry or industry cluster and then get to work understanding how you'll need to adapt your experience and knowledge to that industry.
It also makes sense to choose a large, healthy industry and find some aspect of your current knowledge and experience that could bring an unusual benefit to an employer in the new industry, as a "special sauce" that will be tempting to the employer (maybe your experience in dealing with a heavily regulated workplace?).

With these criteria in mind, health care would be one of the most logical choices: large, growing and, for that special sauce, lots of federal regulations and oversight.

Prepare for the Next Step

Learn how and why your target industry operates the way it does, what is the same and what is different from your current job, where your credentials match and where qualifications might need to be added. Then identify the job that gives you the easiest point of entry into your chosen new career.

Next, build an online professional network in that target industry. Membership in professional groups helps. While a person in the industry with any title is a good contact, those with the same title as your target job, those titles that would interact with yours and those with titles one, two and three levels above you (the people who will hire you) are most valuable.

Finally, become a more active member of your local SHRM chapter. Volunteer for any of the many jobs that need to be done and the committees that make the chapter run. This way you become a contributing member of the professional community before you leverage it to your own ends. By thinking ahead, you will get to know the inner circle of your professional community and be known and appreciated there, as well.

Take these steps and, once the target job and industry are determined, build a resume targeted for that goal and brush up on your job search and interviewing skills. You will be well-prepared to make a smooth transition.

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 YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.  

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