In today’s tough economy, many project managers are facing the dilemma of changing industries and I often get asked about this when teaching project management classes. Can project managers (PMs) switch industries? My answer… it depends. It depends on your individual situation and your goals and aspirations.
Before I give you advice on switching industries, let me give you the perspective of employers on this topic. This is based on my experience in project management as a hiring manager, not on a survey, so take this for what it is worth. Based on what I’ve seen over the past 15 years or so, I would say…
Project management spans across industries… project managers do not.
This is grim news for those of you who are contemplating a change. However, to give yourself a good chance of succeeding, you need to understand the challenge that you are up against. The reason why I don’t think project managers can “easily” span industries, is that a good PM understands more than just a methodology.
To be a great PM, one has to understand the industry. How are you ever going to manage risk, estimates, quality assurance, procurement and all the other things that fall outside of a project schedule… if you don’t know the industry?
When I was younger, I used to think I could manage any project. While I could probably manage just about any small project, I now realize that any significant project requires some understanding of the industry. This is an important distinction in understanding your chances of succeeding in transitioning to another industry. If you are at an early stage of your career, you may be able to make a lateral change by taking on smaller projects. If however, you are 20+ years into your career, to expect to be in the same position of authority, making the same amount of money, in an industry you don’t know very well… well… you get the picture. I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that you need to be realistic in your expectations.
When contemplating switching industries as a project manager there are several things you need to take into account. First of all, you need to ask yourself, do you REALLY have the skills necessary to succeed in the new industry? Some industries are easier to learn than others, and you need to ask yourself if you have the qualifications to effectively do the job. As an example, it would be much more difficult to move into an industry that requires technical competency of some sort.
Many people are thinking about moving into “green” industries (solar energy) or healthcare technology. These are not easy industries to break into without some training or expertise in the area. If you are going to target these industries, you should take some classes from a local university. For example, in healthcare, you need to have a basic understanding of billing, claims, benefits, enrollment, medical records, and membership. You should also have some understanding of medical coding.
In a more technical industry such as solar power, you have a better chance of succeeding if you are an engineer or come from a technical background. If you don’t have this background, you should ask for informational interviews with a company you may be targeting, and ask them what skills are they looking for, then look for ways to acquire these skills yourself.
A second consideration is to target a specific niche in project management. You may excel at managing schedules, risk or quality. There are certifications that you can work on that show your expertise in these areas. However, before you jump in and work on a certificate program, do your homework and ensure that there is a demand for the skill you are going to target.
As you go about trying to switch industries, it is vital that you understand that you are going to have to really work at selling yourself. You may even have to take a position with less responsibility and pay at first. I wrote about my experiences as I transitioned out of the Navy in 1992 in another blog. You may find the perspective interesting.