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Are You Ready for a Change?

HR professionals can, and do, switch industries. But it requires specific interviewing strategies.

An illustration of a group of people in a circle.

Jessica Feliciano had been working for a New York City wholesale food distributor for six years when she decided it was time for a change. Having handled HR, payroll and general bookkeeping for several small companies, she assumed her multidisciplinary background would lead to her choice of offers. But a headhunter advised her otherwise.

“He told me that since I had been in one industry for six years, it would be close to impossible to place me in a different industry,” Feliciano recalls.

Undeterred, she found a different, more reassuring headhunter who quickly matched her skills to the needs of an oral surgery practice on Long Island. And despite the vast difference between food distribution and dentistry, Feliciano nailed her interview.

“The doctors saw what I could bring to their practice and chose me,” she says. 

Frank Landin, SHRM-SCP, similarly had to convince skeptical hiring managers in the early 2000s that he could make the transition from an HR management job with a restaurant chain to a position at a nonprofit. The concern for prospective employers wasn’t whether he could do the job, he says. “It was whether or not I would fit in.”Screen Shot 2023-03-06 at 81929 AM.png

His job search required patience and a bit of salesmanship. But Landin eventually got a position as an HR generalist with an organization that helps people with AIDS. The role was a step down in title, pay and responsibilities, but it put him on a career path he found more personally rewarding and led to even better opportunities. He now heads HR for Meals on Wheels in San Francisco, a large nonprofit that delivers food to homebound seniors. “I finally got to align my craft with my heart,” he says.

It’s not unusual for HR professionals to want to change industries. Some may be seeking more-fulfilling work or a change of pace. Others may want to broaden their experience or get their foot in the door of a growing or better-paying field. Unfortunately, it’s also not unusual for HR job seekers to be brushed off by less visionary recruiters and employers bent on hiring someone with experience in their industry.

“It’s a common challenge,” says Lynn Anglebrandt, HR director for a marketing firm in Michigan who also has worked in manufacturing, finance and academia. But the reality is that HR skills are more transferable than employers often think, according to many HR professionals.

Thinking of changing industries? Bolster your chances of success with these interviewing tips. 

Do Your Homework

“A hiring manager has very little bandwidth, so the one thing they’re most interested in is hiring the person most likely to succeed,” says Anna Cosic, founder of Tiles Collab, a career coaching firm in New York City. Position yourself to be that person by learning about the industry and the specific challenges that it’s facing. Pick the brains of industry-specific network contacts for insider insights. 

Identify Transferable Skills

Core HR skills transfer easily from one industry to another, Cosic says: “Compliance, performance reviews, talent acquisition. That’s pretty standard in any business.” 

Even if your skill set is not an exact match, your experience still may be relevant.

When Cecilia Vocke, SHRM-SCP, wanted to switch from health care to manufacturing, she worried that her lack of experience working with unions would hold her back. But she did have one ace in the hole: She had helped develop an employee grievance procedure while working at a hospital. That experience aided her in landing a job at a large manufacturer in Ohio, where she became a key player during union contract negotiations. 

If you’re missing key skills that are integral to a specific industry, look for ways to bridge the gap. Vocke recommends gaining experience by volunteering with a nonprofit, a local task force or a local Society for Human Resource Management chapter.

Offer a Fresh Perspective

Employers often are hampered by their old ways of doing things. Be prepared to argue why your experience in a different industry could be helpful to them. 

When Feliciano learned that the oral surgery practice where she interviewed was having difficulty recruiting, she recommended talent acquisition strategies that had worked in her other roles. “I convinced them that times are changing and they had to change their hiring model,” she says. 

Speak the Right Language

Many industries have their own jargon and buzzwords. Use the wrong terms and you risk being misunderstood or, worse, ignored entirely. In fact, your resume may not even make it through an applicant tracking system programmed to look for certain terms. 

Josh Ewell learned this lesson the hard way when he began looking for civilian jobs after retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2019. Employer response was lackluster, even though he had been working in HR for more than a decade. But once he dropped his use of military jargon and began using more familiar terms, his prospects improved and he landed a job heading the HR department of a manufacturing firm in Huntsville, Ala. 

“I had to do a hard reset and reconstruct my resume, my interview skills and my expectations,” he says.

Even after you land a job in a new industry, you may still need to get used to its vocabulary, says Alyssia Carstairs, SHRM-CP, a senior HR manager for a large defense contractor in Southern California who also has worked in banking and pharmaceuticals. She keeps a glossary of industry-specific terms at her desk to help her stay on top of trends.

Dress for Success

Choosing the right attire for an interview is important. That may mean dressing down in a more casual or blue-collar environment or donning a suit in order to be taken seriously at a bank or law firm. 

“You have to be able to read the room,” says Landin, who nearly sabotaged his interview with a charity by showing up in a suit. Recognizing that he was overdressed and stuck out, he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. That helped put his interviewer at ease, and he got the job.

Meet Your New Colleagues

Once you land a job in a new industry, don’t be a stranger. Walk the floor and ask to shadow shift supervisors and line workers, Vocke advises. Don a hard hat and steel-toe shoes, if that’s what it takes. “If you’re eager and want to learn,” she says, “you can work anywhere.”   

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.

Illustration by Workstation/iStock.


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