How to Change Industries in Project Management

A project manager explains a client's cost overrun problem with their team at a table.
••• Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

Project management is a highly transferable skill, so it’s common to find project managers wanting to check out other industries after spending some time working in one area. And the good news, it is highly possible.

If you want to make the shift from running computer software projects to launching insurance products or working in green manufacturing, you can. Core project management skills like tracking your project, running successful project meetings, and risk management are the same regardless of your industry.

Project management involves the planning, initiating, and execution of business undertakings. Managers work with controlling all aspects of the endeavor and closing it once completed. They work to demanding timelines and ensure specific goals are accomplished within the company's stated parameters.

Why Change Industries?

There are many reasons why you might want to change industries. The most obvious one is that you have lost your job and are looking for a new one, and don’t want to restrict yourself to only vacancies in your past industry. You also might want a new challenge. Moving from one industry to another is a great way to gain experience and exposure to other ways of working, products, and environments.

Gaining new experience and exposure to other areas is a more common reason to change industries than you might think. A 2018 global survey by LinkedIn says that 40% of all professionals are looking for a career change. Of that 40%, half move to a different industry. Also, the younger a worker is, the more likely they will be to move to another industry—or job function—as a way to move up the corporate ladder.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your own industry is on the decline and you want to make the jump now. Or perhaps your company isn’t performing as well as it could, and you’re worried about the future stability of your current role. Changing industries is also a way to get paid more as a project manager.

Whatever your reason for looking for a move in your project management career, you can put your skills to use in a different industry.

Project management in the IT industry is different from construction project management or project management in healthcare These differences are not because the project management core skills are different. Core skills and methods translate across the industries.

Research Other Industries

First, you’ll want to find out as much as you can about your new or prospective target industry. Whether it’s your first day in a manufacturing firm or you are just testing the waters with your contacts in retail, ask questions to find out if you’d like a role there. Investigate projects completed or in progress by businesses in this industry.

Keep a note of the answers that you receive from your expert contacts. You can turn these into process maps or crib sheets. These will help you at the interview and in your first few weeks in a new role. The more you know about what you are getting into, the more confident you will feel.

Read everything you can about your target industry. It will help decide if this is a good move for you and help you make a bigger contribution more quickly.

Check Out the Professional Organizations

It’s likely that your industry has a professional group of its own. Join if you are eligible. Even if all you do is read the organization’s magazine, it will help you stay up-to-date with the challenges of the industry and boost your knowledge.

Professional groups also have networking opportunities. Check out their online forums if you can’t make it to any of the events in person. Often conferences or seminars are recorded and the videos made available for members for free.

Check out information, reports, blogs, and community post at various project management and other professional organizations. Such groups may include:

  • Project Management Institute (PMI)
  • International Project Management Association (IPMA)
  • Association for Project Management (APM)
  • Industry-specific organizations

Take Classes

Keep your professional certification up-to-date by taking continuing certification courses. Perhaps begin to take the courses to expand the certification you hold into other associated fields.

Joining a new industry is easier if you can prove to a recruiter that you are seriously interested in it. Taking classes is one of the ways that you can do that. There are plenty of short online courses that you can take without investing a lot of money. massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a good place to start. MOOCs are free courses and often run by universities with fantastic reputations. While they have become harder to find and do not offer the same wide range of courses as originally, they are still a viable option.

Once you have joined a company in a new industry, see what classes they can offer you, too. Consider internal and external courses. The faster you get confident with the subject matter and details about the industry and how the company works, the faster you’ll feel like you are really making a difference.

Many industries have professional bodies that offer introductory certificates in the subject matter. As a project manager, you won’t need to know the ins and outs of insurance legislation or how to sell insurance products, but you might benefit from an introductory certificate in the industry basics as this will cover all the terminology you are likely to come across on those projects.

Generally, all the options open to you that you used when you studied to become a project manager are open to you studying about a new industry.

Network and Get a Mentor

Meet up with people in your target industry, or the one you have just joined. Your new employer might have professional or informal networking opportunities, or look at what is available locally to you.

It is an easy way to make new connections in your new or target industry and ask the questions that you might not want to ask your employer.

A mentor is someone you can talk to informally. They generally have a lot of experience in their field and are prepared to share that with you. Getting a mentor when you join a new industry is a good way to quickly tap into a wealth of experience that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you.

In fact, mentors are valuable in all areas of professional project management life, regardless of your career path, it’s good to invest in a mentor relationship if you can.

Industries and Businesses Differences

Once you are in a different industry, there are some quirks to be aware of. It can be severely career-limiting to go into a new commercial organization and assume that you know everything just because you have 20 years of experience in non-profits.

Be aware of what might be subtly different, and this will help you transition to your new industry more quickly, and with less friction. Here are three things to watch out for.

Industry Jargon

There can be a lot of new industry-specific language to take in when you first start out. This language can be a major barrier when switching industries. Even acronyms that you have used for years might mean something else in your new company. Keep a running glossary of terms that you have heard and add or modify the definition of these terms. Note down jargon in meetings and then check your understanding later.

People will be happy to help clarify what terms mean if you ask them, so ask. It can save a lot of embarrassment. Just remember to update your personal glossary, so you don’t ask the same question several times because you’ve forgotten.

The Market

Different industries have different competitive pressures. Where time to market might be paramount when building smartphone apps, a quality outcome—even if that means taking a little longer—might be more appropriate elsewhere. The challenges facing healthcare are not the same as those in oil and gas.

Research is your friend. Build your strategic perspective on the industry as quickly as you can.

Different Practices

Your familiar project management processes might not travel as well as you had hoped. So, be prepared to tweak them for your new environment. For example, health and safety might be front of your mind for engineering and construction, but shift to a low-risk office environment for an insurance firm, and you probably won’t find dedicated health and safety plans for every project.

IT security is crucial, but when you aren’t dealing with ransomware threats, your new company’s approach to security could well be structured differently.

Different companies might have a different project organization structure that perhaps you aren’t as used to. They may focus on using the Agile project management method or may use the traditional—waterfall—approach. Each of these two project management methods varies in the amount of customer collaboration they include and how they process any changes to the management plan. These methods will also vary on the allotment of funds to portions of the project and how they allot time.

Suggesting Changes

Finally, don’t hesitate to—tactfully—suggest ways that existing practices could be changed. It is likely that you were recruited from outside their industry partly to bring new insights and a fresh pair of eyes to some of the project management processes that they are currently working with.

Careers in project management transfer easily because you have many of the skills that will help you be a success in your new roles. Communication skills, for example, are the same whichever industry you work in.