Engineering career advice: so you want to jump industries?

So perhaps you've stared at aircraft floor beams, or HVAC condensers, or oversized pipeline fittings for the last ten years. As you stare longingly into the window of the break room microwave, not noticing that your hot pocket is starting to suffer radiation burns, you realize that for whatever reason, you're in a rut. Maybe you're no longer growing in your position, or the company feels different, or maybe it's you that's different. What to do... So you want to jump industries, eh? Well there's no time like the present. Jump. Jump now. But please try to mind the bottomless pit below.

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Mind that gap

OK, don't do that. Jumping first is probably just a tad stressful, and not terribly effective. You need a plan. Jumping industries by will alone is difficult, because the system sadly is against you. Employment in engineering is highly dependent on specialization, and every Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and recruiter out beating the bushes has been programmed to sort and classify specializations, to understand proven and quantifiable value. Alas, this overlooks a key aspect of any engineer... potential. Nobody's got time to evaluate potential. Back of the line!

There was a time when engineers worked at the same company forever, constantly and meticulously specializing into increasingly narrow yet deep knowledge domains, moving up the technical ladder as a subject matter expert over four decades and then drawing a hefty pension in return for all that dedication. While that is still possible, it's certainly less common. Specialization is key to engineering know-how and execution, but an endless chain along one line of specialization can sometimes be a weakness in itself, because of that darn technology.

As much as shortening corporate lifecycles and increased focus on quarterly results has eroded things like pensions, technology itself has broken the specialization cycle, thanks to technology driven disruption.

You don't want to be specialized in something that gets left behind.

It's about the hats

A fond expression used by many an engineer involves how many hats they have to wear on a particular project. Each hat is a specialization. These days, engineers have to wear more hats more often. If you've only got a couple of hats, you need to find a few more new hats and wear them. The hats you're looking for are hats that apply both in your current industry and your target industry.

Note: sometimes the best hats aren't the most comfortable at first. These are the key transferrable skills, the bridges between where you are and where you might want to be. However, beware if you set out to get all the hats. While over specialization can trap you in an industry, over generalization can limit your effectiveness.

Tell me a story

When you're moving from one industry to another you need a defining path, a narrative that frames your jump not as a suicidal jaunt off the nearest pier, but a logical evolution. That's because you're going to have to tell this story and tell it well. You're going to have to convince others in chance meetings or interviews that your story is not only cohesive, but just feels right. That being said, jumps get harder as you get older, simply because most of that narrative is already written. But it's never too late.

Practical tips for practical jumping

So you're at least vaguely aware that your jump needs a running start, here are some more specific tips to keep in mind:

  • Build a network: You need to know people in the your target industry. It's harder than networking in your industry where you are all at the same conference. Go to general mixers or hit your local startup scene for a nice cross section of industry representation.
  • Tailor your resume: Too many people take one version of their resume and give it to everyone. You have to tailor your resume so that each experience is painted along that narrative often on a company-by-company basis. Sometimes this takes significant work and seems like a hassle - but you're documenting your defining path. But don't get too creative, everything on there needs to be the truth.
  • Buck the system: Yes, skip over ATS applications and endless jobsite search queries. Use your network to find opportunities. Come in through the side door.
  • Hire a specialized recruiter: Executives do this all the time, and it's something becoming more accessible to people with normal salaries. Consider finding someone to help orient you professionally and clearly define where you want to go.
  • Software is eating the world: consider some level of software development regardless of where you're coming from or where you're going. Because software is everywhere. Not that you plan to be #1 coder, but the more you know about what's going on, the better.

Good luck prepping for your jump; you'd be surprised what may unfold in front of you. Then you can always jump back.


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