Jump Starts

Switching Industries? Get Ready to Fine-Tune Skills—and Learn New Ones





Switching industries wasn’t part of Alicia Baker’s career plan. She landed a dream engineering job in aerospace right out of school and worked in the industry for years. But she lost her job when the U.S. space shuttle program ended.

Ms. Baker realized that a transition was inevitable—and after earning her Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, she eventually landed a project management job in the oil industry.


“I always knew my technical skills would transfer easily, and I knew I had the initiative to learn about the industry on the job.”

—Alicia Baker, PMP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Houston, Texas, USA

“I had experience running projects, but I knew that I’d need to get up to speed quickly on the new industry,” she says. For the first six months in the new field, she proactively focused on just that. She took classes, read voraciously and piped up with any and all questions.

The transition went so smoothly that when her organization downsized three years later, she wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of looking for a new job in another industry. She reached far and wide before shifting to IT and is now an engineering program manager at PMI Global Executive Council member Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Houston, Texas, USA.

“I always knew my technical skills would transfer easily, and I knew I had the initiative to learn about the industry on the job,” Ms. Baker says. Her industry-hopping career path is hardly unique. More than half of professionals who change jobs also change industries, according to a 2015 global survey by LinkedIn. And project and program managers are in a prime position to make the jump, because project management skills travel so well.

But project and program managers making a shift should still expect a learning curve. It's more than just industry jargon; the new competitive landscape might be radically different than their former field. To add value to a new industry right out of the gate, apply these insights from industry-hopping practitioners.

Where to Land img img img
Before project managers can make the transition to a new industry, they must first discover where opportunities exist. When one industry’s door closes, these hot sectors could open new ones. Buildings are booming once again. The global volume of construction is expected to surge by 85 percent, to US$15.5 trillion, by 2030, according to a PwC report. In particular, China, the United States and India will account for more than half of all global growth in construction. This project management mainstay shows no signs of contracting. In fact, IT has the strongest jobs outlook of any field surveyed, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report. Big data, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and demographic trends (such as rapid urbanization and an expanding middle class in emerging markets) are expected to fuel ongoing demand. With oil’s future uncertain, more sustainable energy sources are heating up. Solar projects—and the need for project managers—have exploded recently in the United States, China, India, Chile and Mexico. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that solar will account for 35 percent of new power generation infrastructure projects over the next 25 years—with global solar project budgets totaling US$3.7 trillion.

Check out next month’s issue of PM Network for practitioners’ thoughts on which industries will be the next project management hot spot.

img “I’ve made a lot of process maps to study what the steps are in each field and which stakeholders are involved when.”
—Fabiola Erika Flores Quezada, PMP, Nexus Group Restaurants, Lima, Peru

There’s no way around it: Learning a new industry means learning new terms, technologies and processes. “As soon as I started my new job in the oil industry, I asked management what classes they’d recommend so I could learn the tools and product lines,” says Ms. Baker. That proactive stance impressed her boss, and the monthly internal and external classes she took—including hands-on time with tools and machinery used in the oil fields—made managing projects much easier.

“The classes helped me learn the new technology inside and out, so I was more confident in meetings and felt like I knew what I was talking about,” she says.

It’s also important to consider what type of studying is more likely to make the info stick. For Fabiola Erika Flores Quezada, PMP, head of infrastructure projects and government procedures, Nexus Group Restaurants, Lima, Peru, visual learning does the trick. “As I’ve changed from retail to design to banking to restaurants, I’ve made a lot of process maps to study what the steps are in each field and which stakeholders are involved when,” she says. Seeing an industry's typical project pattern mapped out helped the information click more than a list of steps might.


Although project managers are in demand across sectors, remember that not every project management skill and approach is universal. “Project managers usually try to implement project management processes from the previous industry to the new industry, but what's critical in one industry may not be in another,” says Pawan Mishra, PMP, project management office manager, technology and innovation, Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

IT projects in financial organizations might prioritize security requirements more heavily than those in construction or retail, for example. “Keeping the new critical parameter in mind, one should modify the project management processes and workflows accordingly,” Mr. Mishra says.

Sometimes, an industry shift might mean a new approach entirely. When Ms. Baker transitioned to an IT role, she was largely unfamiliar with the agile approach, having worked for more than a decade using waterfall in the aerospace and oil industries. To get up to speed, she attended agile events at her local PMI chapter. She also decided to concentrate her professional development units on agile courses, enrolling in online webinars so she could watch presentations during her downtime. “Agile is what the IT world is all about, so I can’t discount it just because I’ve had a more traditional approach for so long,” she says.


Knowledge from project and program managers experienced in the field can help industry hoppers get up to speed—and deliver value—as quickly as possible. Take note: Networking connections beyond the company’s walls can be more candid than new co-workers. Ms. Quezada recommends reaching out to industry project and program practitioners within existing networks and asking them to meet for an informal learning session. “They can tell you the most common project problems you might find in your new field,” she says. That informal knowledge sharing can influence everything from learning which metrics to monitor more closely to how best to develop risk mitigation plans.

Mr. Mishra recommends joining professional groups and attending networking events that are specific to a new industry. Getting immersed in industry news and terms also can radically speed the transition and provide an up-to-date snapshot of the project landscape. For instance, insiders at industry events also might be able to recommend specific publications, blogs and newsletters that they read.

“You should learn the scale and type of projects running in the industry and which new projects have made some noise in the market, and you should understand who your competitors are as well as the differentiation factors,” he says. “At the same time, you might find a friend who you can ask questions and share thoughts with as you make this transition.”

In the end, the switch to a new industry is a challenge to which project and program practitioners should easily relate. Just like switching from one project to the next, hopping to a new industry requires a desire to learn and adjust.

“Continuous learning is always a part of being a project practitioner,” Mr. Mishra says. “However, having the self-motivation to immerse yourself in the industry’s terminology and business processes will pave the way to success in your new field.” PM


“Having the self-motivation to immerse yourself in the industry’s terminology and business processes will pave the way to success in your new field.”

—Pawan Mishra, PMP, Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates




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