It’s tough to persuade an employer to take a chance on you if you have no experience in your chosen field, but it can be done. Here’s how.
By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Carolyn Hughes, a vice president at career site SimplyHired.com
, puts it bluntly: “In this job market, it’s not at all unusual for a hiring manager to be looking at a pile of 200 resumes for each opening. Some of those candidates are going to have exactly the industry experience they’re looking for. So if yours doesn’t, why shouldn’t they throw it out?” Gulp.
But wait! Before you throw in the towel on trying to change careers, consider these six tried-and-true methods. One of them, or some combination, might get you where you want to go.
Try temping. Since you’re at a disadvantage without industry experience, Hughes says, an obvious solution is to get some. “Sign on with a temp agency that specializes in the field you want to enter,” she suggests. “You’ll probably have to take a step down in pay, but it gives you the chance to prove yourself. The important thing is to get a foot in the door.”
Hughes knows whereof she speaks. Fifteen years ago, she was selling advertising for a newspaper in southern California, but “I saw all these tech companies springing up, and I really wanted to get into one,” she says.
So she researched which temp agencies supplied staffers to tech firms in and around Santa Barbara, quit her newspaper job, and made the move. A series of short-term assignments gave her enough experience to launch her current career in high-tech human resources.
Be ready to talk up your portable skills. “What have you done well that a different type of employer might be able to use?” asks Don Marotto, a managing director at career development firm Impact Group who often counsels executive career changers. “If you’ve succeeded in sales, customer service, or business analysis in any industry, you can do it almost anywhere else.”
Even if not, he adds, “Most people have more transferable skills than they think they have.” The key is to identify yours, then practice putting them in terms a prospective employer can easily recognize. Consider, for example, how Stacey Hilton moved from a job as a TV news reporter and anchor in Augusta, Ga., to a new career in public relations in Raleigh, N.C.
“As a news anchor, I was responsible for a team of people and what we put on the air each day. In PR, they call that a project manager,” Hilton says. “So I tailored my resume accordingly, and played up specific ways my TV experiences would make me great at PR.” It took six months, but Hilton got her dream job as an account manager at 919 Marketing.
Not sure exactly how your skills would fit into a different business? One way to find out: Check out a U.S. Department of Labor web site called O*Net, which spells out the specific knowledge and aptitudes required to get hired in 25,000 types of jobs.
You can also find out who’s seeking your skills at sites like SimplyHired.com. “If you enter the keywords that describe what you’ve done so far, it will show you what kinds of companies want people with your background,” notes Carolyn Hughes. “Explore a bit, and you may be surprised at what you find.”
Go back to school. Taking courses in your chosen field not only teaches you the business and introduces you to new people, but “the classes count as experience on your resume, since you’re learning the business,” says Marc Dorio, author of several career books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting the Job You Want.
Dorio knows a thing or two firsthand about changing careers: He started out as a Roman Catholic priest and superintendent of Catholic high schools, before returning to college for graduate degrees in organizational behavior and industrial psychology. Those credentials — plus his transferable experience in team-building and counseling — led to his being hired by a consulting firm. He now runs his own coaching and consulting company, with Fortune 500 clients like Merck MRK and Johnson & Johnson JNJ .
Network, network, network. When she first moved to Raleigh, Stacey Hilton recalls, “I started cold calling anyone and everyone, from PR firms to police department media relations teams, even if I knew they weren’t hiring. It was a chance to meet people, hand off my resume, and hope they would remember my face if an opening came up.”
Smart. But don’t forget to look close to home as well. Steffan Kammerer launched a career as a web developer while still an intern at the University of Washington in Seattle, then worked full-time in the field for three years before deciding about a year ago that it just wasn’t for him. “I have the wrong personality for sitting in front of a computer all day. I like human interaction,” he says.
So he started thinking about a sales job. Several family members and their friends were in commercial real estate in Kammerer’s hometown of Palo Alto, where the market for office space is booming. A friend of a relative knew of an opening for a leasing associate at the local office of global real estate firm Jones Lang Lasalle JLL and referred Kammerer for an interview.
He got the job, and loves it. “All I did was ask around to see if anyone knew of anything,” he says. “Sometimes it really is who you know, and how well you know them.”
Look for the right match. Big-company denizens looking to change careers often overlook smaller firms, including startups, notes Carolyn Hughes. That’s a mistake. “Big companies usually have more rigid job descriptions,” she says. “Your best bet might be companies with between 100 and 300 employees, which are big enough to have opportunities but small enough that individual roles are more broad, fluid, and flexible.”
Marc Dorio agrees: “Employers are not all the same. Some want a specific background and set of experiences, but others define jobs more creatively and are interested in how you present your own approach to the work.” Dorio coached one former financial analyst who was hired by a market research firm because “they liked the way he proposed to apply his financial acumen to the role. It added a different dimension.”
Some employers actually prefer people who, lacking industry experience, are also free of the bad habits and stale thinking that experience can engender. “We don’t pay much attention to industry-specific experience,” says Kenneth Wisnefski, founder and CEO of WebiMax, a search-optimization company in Mount Laurel, N.J. “We hire talented people who have succeeded elsewhere, and then train them to become the type of employees we want.” WebiMax has more than doubled its headcount so far in 2011, from 70 to 150.
Keep trying. “Don’t be afraid to knock on doors and tell people why you would be valuable in their company,” Stacey Hilton says. “My boss tells me that what finally won her over was my persistence. I would call her every week to see if they were hiring yet — but without crossing the line into being annoying.”