Industry Knowledge for Professionals

On 04/27/2010, in Career, Formal Education, by Jordan Wilson

In Basic Business Skills for Professionals, we looked at why learning basic business skills is important for young professionals. Especially professionals in non-business technical fields (e.g. law, engineering, information technology, etc.).

Business students reading the post probably breathed a sigh of relief. Learning basic business skills in university or college puts them a step up on their professional cousins.  

Sorry. Unfortunately, you are not off the hook.

You may possess basic business skills, but you probably will not have any industry specific knowledge. To be effective in business you will want to learn about the industry you work in or deal with on a daily basis.

Technical professionals need to understand basic business issues if they want to best support clients. But the converse is also true. Finance, accounting, and other business professionals must understand something about their clients’ industries to best serve their needs.

Not to mention avoiding sounding like idiots when talking to clients.

When I first met an Exploitation Manager I worried about being harassed. Not knowing the oil industry, I did not realize it was a legitimate position, albeit one with a slightly unusual title.

So how does one gain client specific industry knowledge quickly, especially when having to continue honing one’s own technical skills?

The following thoughts are equally relevant for any business professional (accountants, bankers, lawyers, financial planners, investment analysts, human resource personnel, etc.) who will work in technical industries or deal with clients from those industries.

For example: accounting students that will be auditing biotechnology firms; internal auditors or lawyers that work in-house for pharmaceutical companies; loan officers in a bank that need to assess collateral from a junior mining company; investment analysts that must determine future cash flow prospects for a natural gas producer. The list of examples is endless.

Educate Yourself While Still in School

If you know the industry with which you will likely interact, consider using an elective or two to gain some technical knowledge.

In Western Canada, the natural resource industry is dominant. Introductory courses in geology, petroleum engineering, or environmental management might be more useful in your career than sociology, astronomy, or Greek mythology.

Showing the initiative to learn about a technical sector that may help in your career will serve you better in the eyes of recruiters than getting a slightly better grade in an irrelevant course.

Do a Class Project on a Business in a Major Sector

University classes often require project work or term papers on companies or business sectors.

If you know the industry you will be involved with, try to study a company in that technical field. By analyzing a company or industry, you will enhance your knowledge of that sector. It will look good on your resume when interviewing for a full-time position somewhere.

Often companies will meet with students who are studying them (in a positive manner. Avoid calling those you wish to expose for questionable tactics like Enron). Larger companies will have a public relations department that can provide information on the company and possibly assist in lining up interviews with employees. Smaller companies will not have public relations, but Human Resources would be a good place to contact for assistance.

Find an Industry Relevant Summer Job

Consider seeking summer employment in an important sector while still in school.

Just by being in the environment, you will learn something about the industry. How it functions and the terminology used within it.

As a summer employee, full-time staff will usually be happy to discuss the industry and answer questions you may have. They may be able to provide you with literature and internal training material on components of the business.

You may also develop contacts that can be called upon in the future to clarify open issues. Also, contacts may be used as references during your career progression.

In Western Canada, the economy is heavily resource based. By working during the summer breaks for a resource company, or even a service company in the industry, you will gain some exposure to the industry itself. If you live in Silicon Valley, you will be dealing with many high tech clients. In parts of America and Canada, farming and ranching may be the major industry.

Look at the location where you intend to live and work to get a specific idea as to the major industries. Then try to get a summer job with a firm involved in that field.

If you can get a position that fits your primary career goals, even better. By this I mean, if you plan to become a Chartered Accountant in Western Canada, working for the summer in the accounting department at Imperial Oil would be the ultimate prize.

You would gain both accounting and industry experience and that is great on the resume.

Take Continuing Education While Working

Most professional firms realize that their new employees lack any knowledge of the client industries they will deal with. So the firms, or their overlying professional organizations, will provide training in key sectors for staff.

In my case, I like to keep abreast of accounting and finance issues by watching free Webinars (internet based seminars) offered by the major accounting firms and various professional organizations. Just in the last few weeks I have covered a variety of topics: China’s Changing Investment Environment; Quarterly Accounting Roundup; Tax Accounting; Succession Planning; Emerging Issues for Energy Companies; Improving Liquidity in Commercial Real Estate; Corporate Governance; Risk Management, Portfolio Valuation; Technology Fraud.

So there are plenty of cost-effective opportunities to expand one’s knowledge.

Usually the training options are quite good for new professionals. The downside is that you will also have to get fully up to speed in your own position. Trying to learn about another field can be a time consuming and tiresome exercise. That is why I recommend trying to gain some exposure before starting your new career.

If pressed on time or money, you can even just read trade journals and news and general information over the internet to keep up to date.

When I Chaired the Board of operating companies in Cayman Islands, Jersey, Singapore, and The Bahamas, I needed to know what was going on in the locations. Just by following the local newspapers I was able to keep informed about the jurisdictions.

All these suggestions will help you become a better professional.

One who can best serve your employer and the clients that you will support.

As a bonus, these actions look fantastic on the resume. They show initiative and better knowledge levels than your peers. And that will give you the advantage in any future job hunts.

Good luck!

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