23 August 2012

If you're job-hunting, or you read this blog a lot, you will have heard about 'transferable skills'. They're particularly important for people who want to change career.

What exactly are transferable skills?

Simply put, transferable skills are skills that you can take from one job to another. It doesn't have to be a proper, paid job either, it can be a temporary job, volunteer placement or any constructive career break experience. 

What are some examples of transferable skills?

The most common types of transferable skills are broad ones that are used in most jobs. 

  • Communication skills - in almost every job you will need to talk to other people, whether that's colleagues, customers, kids, suppliers, etc. The wider range of people you have to talk to, the better your communication skills will be. For example, if you took a TEFL course then went abroad to teach English, you'd learn to communicate with other TEFL students (who might be from a totally different background than you), colleagues in your school abroad (who will have a different first language and culture) and the kids you're teaching.
  • Problem-solving skills - you are a lucky person indeed if you've never faced a problem at work! Whether it's struggling with an uncooperative computer (and IT manager) or discovering that a system could be made much more efficient, your job will probably find you trying to fix something at some point. On a career break, things can often go wrong and you need to sort them out straight away - whether that's finding yourself stranded with no cash, or working out a creative solution to an issue on your volunteering project.
  • Overcoming challenges - similar to problem-solving, overcoming challenges is an important skill because it shows you are tenacious. In a work situation, for example, you might find yourself in the common scenario of discovering that a job wasn't what you expected (or were promised). On a career break, you might have to overcome a physical or mental challenge that's stopping you from acheiving what you want - for example, learning how to manage your two left feet so you can pass your ski instructor's course.
  • Planning - most jobs involve planning to some extent, whether that's organising your own or someone else's tasks, or simply planning how to fit all that work in! Any job where you've shown that you can plan properly (doing tasks in a certain order, organising a schedule) will give you the experience you need to do other sorts of planning (strategy or project management). Any kind of career break necessarily involves planning (booking flights, packing, getting jabs, researching location) and some career break activities involve even more (eg planning lessons as a TEFL teacher, or organising legs of a journey).
  • Training or teaching - this is one transferable skill that's not necessarily relevant in every kind of job, but it's worth including as the experience is not always automatic either. If you want to make the move into training or education, some experience in this field will help you. If all you've done in your current career is show the new person how to work the photocopier, a career break that involves teaching (paid or voluntary) could help you get your foot in the door. It doesn't have to be teaching English or teaching children either - for example, you could become a diving instructor, or volunteer teaching business skills to a women's co-operative.
  • Teamwork - there are very few jobs about where you work completely on your own, so any kind of teamwork experience is useful. It's not enough to just say you've worked with others though, you have to show that you've done it effectively. For example, you took on board all your colleagues' views to develop a project that everyone is happy with, or you ensured your task was done to the best of your ability so it had a positive impact on everyone else's work. Most career breaks involve teamwork of some sort - especially volunteering placements - and you'll be working with people outside your own industry so the experience can expand your horizons at the same time.

And remember, developing all these transferable skills show that you are capable of learning - important for any job applicant, but even more so for older ones, who might have been out of formal education for a long time. Showing you can collect, organise, absorb and above all, use new information will make you an asset in your new job.

How do I show I've got these transferable skills?

Work backwards. You need to link your experience from your old job to the job you want to be doing, but you need to start by looking at what the new job requires.

For example, if you want to work in international development, you would need to find out what skills an employer in this field is looking for. As well as those mentioned above, they might include negotiation, research and language skills. So you would look back over your experience, and pull out any examples of times when you've used these skills. Sales would be an obvious example of where you have used negotiation skills - and you can back this up with concrete evidence too, in the form of your sales figures.

In the case of research, while you might never have investigated the impact of health education programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, you might still know how to collect, organise and analyse information, and how to present it clearly to others. 

With language skills, your communication might be quite good, if your previous job has involved talking to a wide range of people or if your job involved communicating a message in a broader way (eg raising awareness or marketing). But if you haven't learnt a new language since taking GCSE French, well, that brings us onto our next point...

I need more transferable skills - what should I do?

Develop them. You can do this in 4 ways:

  • Expand your role in your current job, if you can. However, this is very difficult for a lot of people - for example, you can't learn to talk to customers if you're a back-office employee.
  • Try to get a new job which will let you develop relevant skills - the downside of course is that you'll be starting again from the bottom. But as they say, it's better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, rather than halfway up one you don't care about.
  • Take a course. This is good for the more specific transferable skills, such as language or project management. You don't necessarily have to leave work to do courses either, as so many are available in the evening now.
  • Take a career break. An obvious suggestion from The Career Break Site, of course, but a good one! A career break lets you develop skills with low risk - you're not committing yourself to an entirely new career, and if you're able to take a sabbatical, you have job security too. The added bonus of a career break is that it makes you stand out from all the other job-seekers because it shows you've got the confidence and initiatve to do something different!


Do you have any questions about transferable skills? Stick them in the comments below!