Say you want to change careers and enter a new field, how do you get hired when you have no experience for that new job? The blunt truth is that you always must have experience related to the job you want because employers don’t hire for potential. However, this experience need not come in the form of paid, full-time, on-the-job experience. Employers do prefer job candidates who have that kind of traditional experience – i.e., people who have done the exact same job before (and ideally at a competitor!). But that is not the only experience that employers value. You can demonstrate relevant experience for a job you want, even if you have never worked in that field, in four ways:
Theresa, a client of mine moved from an operations role in financial services to a community outreach role in public education due in part to her volunteer work with education organizations. Flexjobs, a job site specializing in flexible work opportunities, featured a career change story on Greg, who went from administration at a movie and video laboratory to Executive Director at a Habitat for Humanity chapter. An amateur carpenter, Greg volunteered for Habitat before moving into a part-time construction manager role and then finally the ED role. Volunteering expands your skill base and your network, and you demonstrate a commitment to your new field. Volunteering also provides a platform for you to get tangible results that you can showcase to prospective employers.
You may not even have to change your current job to get some hands-on experience — paving the way, right where you are, to get hired with no experience. In addition to volunteering outside, Theresa got some valuable education-related experience by initiating and then overseeing a mentoring/ professional development program for the women’s affinity group at her bank. Affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups, are a great way to gain experience outside your normal scope of work. By getting involved with your company’s affinity groups, you will meet people in different functions and levels, including senior executives. If your company doesn’t have affinity groups, you can start one, or you can look at professional associations in your community related to your new target field.
You do not have to get a formal graduate degree to make a career change, but school can help you get hired with no experience. But any learning that you do – including certifications or self-study – provides tangible proof to prospective employers of your genuine interest in a field. Academic experience also gives you skills and expertise, and if it requires group projects or assignments, it provides some hands-on experience. Your professors and classmates also add to your network, and your school may know of potential opportunities.
Deep, curated expertise
We all know at least one person who maintains deep expertise in a field completely unrelated to their job — the baseball savant who memorizes player stats and historical trivia but doesn’t work anywhere in or around the MLB, or the fashion-forward friend with a great sense of style who doesn’t work anywhere in or around fashion. Yet, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that given the right opportunity, they could talk their way into a job in baseball or fashion because they know that much. You can imagine these extreme hobbyists can get hired with no experience but with knowledge and passion alone. Hone and curate expertise in your target field. The more you know, the more credible you are as a candidate. You will be able to intelligently discuss the relevant trends and issues with prospective employers in your field. You will develop an informed point of view. Employers will see you as a peer because you speak their language.
If you’re genuinely interested in an industry or functional role, you will have experience with it, even if it’s from passion projects, book knowledge from a classroom, or pro bono experience as a volunteer or member of an affinity group or professional association. You will not have to convince employers of your potential because you will have proven your potential in the actions you have already taken. You will also prove to yourself that you’re serious about this new field – sometimes an industry or role only seems interesting but once you get hands-on it loses its luster. Getting relevant experience now benefits you and your next employer.
A version of this post originally appeared in my Leadership column for Forbes.com.