March / April 2017

Career Pivot: 4 Steps for a Successful Transition

David G. Smith
Career Advice

Hi David, I am trying to make a career change. I want to move into a different area of engineering, and I am not having any luck. How can I be more effective?

Transitioning to a new functional area can be difficult; it requires a different approach than pursuing opportunities in the same space.

Gather Data

First, gather data so you can assess the change you want to make; it’s critical that you understand the job function you want to pursue. Job descriptions are a good source of information, but you will likely need to dig deeper. Use LinkedIn to research the background of people currently in a role that you want to pursue. Examine their job histories, education, and training— how do they compare to yours?

Informational interviews are also important. There often is no better source for understanding job requirements than top performers who are currently doing the job. Asking about their career paths, how they obtained their positions, and what they learned along the way can provide a great deal of insight. A personal connection might also be able to help with a resume review or even a recommendation.

Attending ISPE conferences or other networking opportunities can also help focus on the area you are pursuing. These events are often excellent sources for information about the kind of work performed, new technology, and best practices.

Look Inward

Once you’ve gathered your data, you will need to look inward and complete a thorough gap analysis. Ask yourself several questions

  • What projects, training, and technology would be directly applicable in my new function?
  • How critical is this knowledge to the core function of the role I am pursuing?
  • What have I not been exposed to? Hi David, I am trying to make a career change. I want to move into a different area of engineering, and I am not having any luck. How can I be more effective?
  • Am I being realistic? Do I have the knowledge and experience to be successful?
  • How would I close these gaps? Do I need to take a course? Should I consider job shadowing or taking on a project to gain knowledge or experience?

There are many tools on the internet that can help you with this exercise. Whichever one you choose, however, make sure it helps you understand what you would bring to the role on Day One, what support you would need to transition, and what gaps you can reasonably close by your own means.

Before applying, there are several other ideas to consider.

Here Or There?

It is usually easier to pivot into a new department within the company you are already working for. You likely already know about its systems and procedures, which will make training in other areas easier. You also probably have internal connections that can provide help and advice. Your track record and demonstrated learning agility is also known.

Sometimes an internal move is not possible—the firm may be too small or the desired function does not exist. In this case, you will need to find a way to obtain the necessary knowledge and relationships with another company.

While organizations often look to external candidates that offer a different background and fresh way of thinking, hiring managers know that they take on potential risk when they hire someone without direct experience. You will need to utilize the information from your assessment, your knowledge of the company, and any connections you’ve made to help frame the argument that you would be a great fit with minimal risk of failure and high potential for long-term success.

If this bar is too hard to clear, you may want to consider a lateral move to an organization that would allow you to move internally once you have gained knowledge and a track record. You will need to use your data-gathering method to assess the potential for such an internal pivot.

Focus Your Resume

Focus on where you want to go in relation to where you have been. Review the job description you are considering and go through an exercise of turning each job duty and requirement into a question. Your answer should indicate the training or experience you have to prove you meet the requirements. Where you lack direct experience, think about what you have done that is similar and transferable. Don’t forget to add real outcomes (cost savings, improved safety, reduced errors, etc.) to enhance the value of what you choose to highlight.

This should help translate your experience so that the hiring manager can better understand your qualifications. It can also tell you what to eliminate from you resume. I can’t overstate the importance of customizing your resume in this way. I have heard countless comments from hiring managers wondering why a candidate applied for a certain job with a resume so focused on irrelevant skills and experiences that he or she appeared to be seeking a completely different kind of role.

Thank you once again for your questions. I hope you will find this guidance helpful. If you are curious about other topics, please email me at, and I will likely answer in a future column.