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The Catch 22: The Truth About Transferable Skills and How to Showcase Your Potential to a Future Employer

The Catch 22: The Truth About Transferable Skills and How to Showcase Your Potential to a Future Employer

If you’re a hiring manager recruiting for a senior-level role, how apt are you to care about transferable skills really? And as a job seeker, do these skills actually have the ability to move needles in your search, or are they just another buzzy term that peddlers of career advice can use to clamor for your attention? 

The truth is, frustratingly, somewhere in the middle. 

Although it’s unlikely that transferable skills will be what lands you a job offer at the executive level, as one tool in your kit, they can help. That’s good news for the growing number of people who are looking to make a dramatic career shift. One 2019 survey found that 49% of workers reported changing industries during the course of their careers, with the average age for that change clocking in at 39. And now, after what’s been for many a year of drastic changes — some self-selected, others not — the percentage of people bent on changing paths may be increasing. 

To pull off a successful career change, knowing how to sell your transferable skills is paramount. But when so many hiring managers prefer to see existing, applicable skills on candidates’ resumes, how can you get around that and package your skills in a way that’s convincing? Below, we heard from experts about the right way to approach transferable skills, and the mistakes they advise avoiding.

1. Don’t expect transferable skills alone to get you the job

Hiring experts emphasize the value of presenting transferable skills as an additional selling point in tandem with other explicitly relevant skills.

“While transferable skills are useful, I tend to lean toward specific existing skills that get the job done,” Michael Shen, CEO of Skill Success, said. “However, transferable skills can give you leverage if you do have some existing skills that are fit for a position.”

On their own, they’ll only go so far. But Tal Shelef, co-founder of CondoWizard, said that while he expects to see direct skills on a candidate’s resume, that doesn’t mean transferable skills are superfluous. They’re a specific advantage that he’s willing to pay extra for.

I believe that transferable skills amplify the results of our applicable skills,” he said. “Transferable skills are important, assuming the candidate already has the qualifications we are looking for. At the end of the day, we are paying them for their applicable skills. And transferable skills only makes it better. If my worker has good transferable skills, I am willing to pay them extra. That is a premium I want to keep.”

But what if the only skills you have that relate to a given role are transferable ones? Experts say it’s a good idea to buttress these with more targeted, direct-experience skills, and that you don’t necessarily have to acquire them in the workplace. 

“Consider board positions, volunteer engagements, education, professional training and other extracurricular activities when assessing your transferable skills,” recommends Kyle Elliott, the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com.

2. Don’t think the value of your transferable skills will communicate itself

A trap too many job seekers fall into is thinking hiring managers should be able to simply infer the value their transferable skills offer. When making the case for yourself as a strong candidate, though, no part of your story should rely on a hiring manager’s ability to fill in the blanks for you. And that’s especially true when it comes to the importance of your transferable skills.

Transferable skills on the resume“When job seekers are leaning on their transferable skills to get hired, it’s critical to explain the narrative of how the skills you have relate to the job you’re seeking. Don’t assume that a recruiter or hiring manager will connect the dots for you,” Shayleen Stuto, VP of HR and Administration at TechnologyAdvice, said. “On a resume, application, or interview be explicit on how and why the experience you have translates. Review the job description and be prepared to share examples of how your past experience has set you up for success in the duties described.”

As a recruiter who often works with career changers, Elizabeth Meyer has seen too many candidates fail to do this.

“When you are seeking a job that would require you to tap into transferable skills rather than literal experience, the onus is on you, the applicant, to prove the efficacy of the transferable skills,” Meyer said. “As a recruiter, I often hear from job applicants who believe in themselves and their transferable skills and hope the employer sees it in them. What I coach those applicants to do is to show me you know the job you’re applying for and how your transferable skills will help you deliver on expectations of the job.”

3. Don’t overdo what you’re calling a transferable skill

Avoid the temptation to treat a resume or interview like a dumping ground for any and all skills, transferable or otherwise. If you’re not strategic and intentional about which transferable skills you choose to highlight, you could come off as either too much of a generalist or someone who’s trying to overcompensate for a lack of experience. 

“I think it’s a question of job seekers knowing exactly which transferable skills to talk about and showing how they relate to the work they’d do at your company,” Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass, said. “You can’t just list a lot of things you’re good at and expect hiring managers to jump on it. Candidates can instead pick a few skills and give examples of how they apply to the industry they’re trying to break into.”

Wondering which of your transferable skills to highlight? Specificity matters here, too. Namely, if you can’t illustrate how a given skill has specifically added value to past employers, it probably isn’t worth mentioning. 

Transferable skills get a bad rap in large part because they’ve been reduced to buzzwords like ‘communication’ and ‘teamwork,’” Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations at Force by Mojio, said. “Job seekers need to ground their explanations of transferable skills in real-life, quantifiable terms. It’s not enough to say you’re a good communicator or highly organized or even tech-savvy. You have to offer ‘proof’ for the claims you’re making about these general, wide-ranging transferable skills.”


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About the Author

As a writer, Liv McConnell is focused on driving conversations around workplace equity and the right we should all have to careers that see and support our humanity. Additionally, she writes on topics in the reproductive justice space and is training to become a doula.