Project Management Institute

Shifting gears




Ready for a change? Switching sectors may be just what you need to get ahead. Here's how to prove your mettle.

You might not think of yourself as such, but that's one take on what project managers are, says Roger D. Beatty, PhD, PMI-RMP, PMP, quality assurance and risk manager at Unisys Federal Systems, a global IT consultancy in Reston, Virginia, USA. You must ask yourself, “Where is the next project? And do I have to switch sectors to get there?”

“Project managers should recognize that our profession is largely based on projects that have a beginning and an end,” he says. “Because all projects eventually end, project managers need to develop ongoing business development skills in the form of professional networking, continuous training and outreach via social media networking.”

Sometimes switching sectors is the means to remain viable in a crowded job market. Perhaps you've developed a passion for a certain industry or a desire to make a difference in the world by managing projects in the not-for-profit or government sectors. Maybe you've been unemployed for a stretch and want to get back into the project arena. Or you could just be ready for new challenges in your career.

“The current global economic situation, which resulted in the loss of millions of jobs, has exposed the interdependencies that exist between continents and countries,” Dr. Beatty says. “As a result, everyone may have to revise their personal strategy for continuity of employment. Switching sectors is one of those strategies.”


Whatever the motivation, project managers who switch sectors must understand that there are often big differences in everything from terminology to processes. You can't always manage teams the way you have in the past.

“Over the course of my career I have switched sectors a couple of times and even managed projects in different sectors at the same time,” says Jonathan Weinstein, PMP, president of Line of Sight, a project management consultancy in Ellicott City, Maryland, USA. “My advice is to be confident in your skills as a project manager and embrace your ‘rookie’ status in the new sector.”

Increase your chances of being asked to a job interview by demonstrating your commitment to the industry.

“To switch from IT to construction, as an example, you would need to have skills and knowledge relevant to construction—its terminology, products, processes and standards, including government regulations,” Dr. Beatty says.

Certain industries, such as healthcare, have only recently begun to utilize project management talent, says Chris Wisniewski, manager of the New York State Department of Health's Office of Health Information Technology Transformation in Albany, New York, USA. That makes it an excellent time to transfer your skills to growing sectors eager for experienced project professionals.

Bringing project management capabilities can be extremely valuable to your new-sector employer and professionally rewarding to a motivated project manager.

“Many times, there simply hasn't been an exposure to or understanding of project management techniques or concepts,” Mr. Wisniewski says. “Other times, the ability to bring a fresh perspective (for example, bringing a private-sector perspective on how to manage projects to a public-sector organization, or vice versa) can provide new and potentially more effective ways of thinking about how to solve problems and get work done.”


Government work is one sector that's quite lucrative and can offer project managers a diverse range of projects and experiences.

“Where else can you work on national drought prevention and water security programs, as well as cabinet decision-making systems to help provide ministers information in electronic format? Then work on healthcare, judicial and social case management business intelligence work efforts to define where to best place the scarce but highly skilled resources the government has? And that's just in one week,” says Chris Wisniewski, New York State Department of Health, Office of Health Information Technology Transformation, Albany, New York, USA. “The next week we might handle programs in roads, transport, energy, heritage and education.”

Getting the chance to work on government projects can be tough, though. Here are five ways to increase your chances of making the transition:


Many governments require project professionals to hold certifications. Holding the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential could be necessary to gaining entrée to this sector.


Go to your local PMI chapter events and meet other project managers who work in government. Online, visit PMI's communities of practice, which are divided by sector, including one for government. Collaborate with peers worldwide to find solutions that can advance your career as well as the profession itself.


Offer your project management expertise for a not-for-profit that the government has an interest in, such as the Special Olympics. This will help prepare you for the different way the government manages projects compared to the private sector.


One of the most common routes to employment with a governmental agency is through a contract or project item position filled through a third-party organization, Mr. Wisniewski says. Expect higher pay and 12- to 18-month contracts, but limited or no benefits, he adds.


This is a great way to work for a variety of agencies and hone your expertise over time. “I developed a good understanding of the challenges public-sector agencies face, as well as some of the best practices and successful tactics used to address them,” Mr. Wisniewski says. “When the opportunity arose to take on a full-time job, I was well positioned to take advantage of it.”


To successfully move from one sector to another, begin with a self-assessment.

“You have to think about your strengths and weaknesses, and about your value to other companies in a new sector,” says Richard Gelders, PMP, senior partner and program manager for Wise Business Consulting in Shanghai, China. “Sell your skills that are independent from any industry and sector, such as general project management and leadership skills.”

Network with professionals in a desired industry to scope out “the lay of the land” in that sector.

“Seek out the experts and listen to their war stories,” Mr. Weinstein says. “Ask your new colleagues what they believe works and doesn't work in their organization and sector. There are no dumb questions that you can ask as the new project manager.”

Once you have studied sector specifics, promote yourself to new employers by highlighting universal project management skills, such as good communication, analytical and problem-solving proficiency, adaptability and flexibility.

Many organizations might even hire you precisely because you offer a fresh take.

“Some project managers who have been working in the same industry for a long time, especially internal managers, get stuck in a fixed way of running projects,” Mr. Gelders says. “The project management world is changing; there are new tools, new ideas. Make sure you focus on this during your switch. Use the switch as a development moment in your career.”


img Listen to a podcast on career transitions by John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Only on PMI's Career Central.


img TIP Come up with an intense networking plan. When looking to transition into a new sector, “I recommend attending diverse professional events two to four times each week,” says Roger D. Beatty, PhD, PMI-RMP, PMP, Unisys Federal Systems, Reston, Virginia, USA.

The strategy works—Dr. Beatty has switched sectors several times during the course of his career in IT, including education, energy, healthcare, telecommunications and currently, government consulting.


Perhaps the most frustrating part of shifting industries is being dismissed outright by hiring managers. Emphasize your general skill set to potential employers in your résumé and cover letter, as well as skills specific to the job and industry to show you've done your research.

“The cover letter and résumé must be written from the employer's perspective, using terms that are common in the targeted sector,” Mr. Weinstein says. “A compelling story, short and to the point, will help the potential employer get past their skepticism and grant an interview.”

You must convince new employers that you can repeat your successes in a new environment.

“Start-up work in a new sector requires obsessive dedication, energy and focus, because you need to quickly build positive perceptions about your ability to perform in the new sector,” Dr. Beatty says. “This is especially true when you don't have a history of past performance to support you.”

Without any relevant experience, though, how can you break into a new industry?

  • Write a standout résumé. “When a project manager attempts to switch industry sectors, the résumé should clearly demonstrate an understanding of the job opportunity in the context of the related industry sector,” Dr. Beatty says.

    Be sure to include key foundational project management skills that are important in all industries. And make sure to present your résumé in a format and style appropriate for the sector. You can gain this information through research and networking.

  • Work your connections. Whenever possible, see if there's anyone you've met who has a connection to a company you'd like to work for. Ideally, have your résumé delivered by hand to the hiring manager or forwarded in an e-mail from a trusted professional contact, Dr. Beatty advises.
  • Ace the interview. If you've scored an interview without direct industry experience, then the screener or hiring manager has already seen something on your CV or résumé that's compelling. Now you need to make a good impression.

    “Strive to identify those factors before the interview or at the very start of the meeting,” Dr. Beatty says. “You might ask, ‘Can you please tell me what you liked about my résumé?’ If the hiring manager responds, then the best approach is to address these key points in the responses to his or her questions.”

  • Learn from your mistakes. As a general rule, your biggest challenge while job-hunting in a new sector is to fail and not know why, Dr. Beatty notes.

    “If a project manager is not getting any responses, then there is probably a fundamental problem,” he says. “Maybe the supply of more qualified candidates is large, or the résumé does not have the correct key words.”

    If you don't know why your job hunt is failing, seek out an informational interview with a subject matter expert in the new sector for advice, he says.

    With the right preparation, project professionals can break into a new sector. Those who feel stuck in their career or are at a professional crossroads might just discover that these new challenges are the job refresh they need. PM

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