Learn why transferable skills are important and how to talk about your own.
The average person can expect to hold 12 different jobs in his or her lifetime (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). With all this job-changing, how can you navigate your career in the direction that you want to take it? One way to improve your career prospects may be to cultivate your transferable skills.
Transferable skills are those skills that are useful, and maybe even necessary, to the performance of a wide variety of jobs. A skill may be considered transferable if you learn and perfect it in one context, like school, a job, volunteer work, or a hobby, and then can use that skill in new and different situations (Nagele & Stalder, 2017). A huge range of skills, proficiencies, competencies, and talents may qualify as transferable skills. Some transferable skills are very specific and technical—for example, knowledge of specific software or industry regulations. Other transferable skills are more generic such as a general proficiency with computers, or fluency in a foreign language. A third category of transferable skills is often called “soft skills”, like the ability to communicate effectively and problem-solve creatively.
Soft skills are a type of transferable skills that are often needed to successfully apply technical skills and knowledge (Bancino & Zevalkink, 2007). For example, a restaurant manager’s ability to create a work schedule for a large staff requires technical skills like numeracy, literacy, computer proficiency, and administrative skills. Creating a schedule that staff members are generally happy with also requires the soft skills of empathy, leadership, and interpersonal communication.
Why Transferable Skills Are Important
Change is an increasingly large part of people’s professional lives. Even within the same job, you may often change teams or projects. Having skills that transfer from one situation to another may be extremely helpful when adapting to these frequent changes in your roles and responsibilities.
While technical skills that are readily transferable across contexts may serve you well, having soft skills such as ambiguity tolerance, cultural acceptance, self-confidence, creative thinking, and the ability to give and receive feedback may be particularly valuable (de Villiers, 2010). Having a set of soft skills that you can carry from one role to another may even improve your earning potential. People with the soft skills of leadership, planning, and problem-solving tend to have higher incomes (Ramos et al., 2013).
Examples of Transferable Skills
Skills and proficiencies that tend to be important across workplace settings include (Nagele & Stalder, 2017):
Fundamental skills – literacy, numeracy, proficiency with technology, and physical skills.
People skills – oral and written communication, interpersonal skills, influencing, negotiating, teamwork, customer service, leadership, and management.
Conceptualizing or thinking skills – managing information, problem-solving, organizing and planning, critical thinking, systems thinking, time-management, and teachability.
Business skills – innovation, entrepreneurship, and administrative skills.
Community skills – citizenship, work ethic, emotional labor, cultural awareness, and expression.
Although skills from each category may be required to do most jobs, the specific skills needed to perform a specific job may vary. Some transferable skills are more general than others. For example, basic communication and literacy skills will probably be required in most jobs. Other transferable skills may not be valued in as many jobs or industries. For example, customer service skills may not be as strongly valued in manufacturing roles as they are in cashier roles.
Transferable skills can be organized into broad categories of specific competencies and strengths (Ramos et al., 2013). Describing your specific abilities may be more informative than making broad statements about your generic skills.
Literacy Skills – reading and writing documents, memos, forms, or reports.
Leadership Skills – coaching and motivating staff, developing staff competencies, planning activities, making strategic decisions, and managing resources.
Physical Skills – physical strength, dexterity with your hands, endurance, and stamina.
Problem Solving Skills – spotting and analyzing problems, identifying causes, and finding solutions.
Influencing Skills – advising customers, persuading others, dealing with people, making speeches and presentations.
Teamwork Skills – working in teams, listening to colleagues, paying attention to details.
Planning Skills – time-management, organizing, and planning tasks.
Numeracy Skills – working with numbers or using advanced mathematical and statistical tools.
Emotional Labor – language skills, negotiation, emotion-regulation, and managing other people's feelings.
Transferring your skills from one situation to another may not be easy (Saks et al., 2014). The ability to recognize which of your skills may serve you well in a new situation is itself a skill. And recognizing which of your skills are transferable and what new skills you may need to pursue may be the most valuable transferable skill of all.
Bancino, R., & Zevalkink, C. (2007). Soft skills: the new curriculum for hard-core technical professionals. Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers (J1), 82(5), 20-22.
de Villiers, R. (2010). The incorporation of soft skills into accounting curricula: preparing accounting graduates for their unpredictable futures. Meditari Accountancy Research, 18(2), 1-22.
Nagele, C., & Stalder, B. E. (2017). Competence and the Need for Transferable Skills. In M. Mulder (Ed.), Competence-based Vocational and Professional Education Bridging the Worlds of Work and Education (pp. 739-753). Springer.
Ramos, C. R., Ng, M. C. M., & Sung, J. (2013). Wages and skills utilization: effect of broad skills and generic skills on wages in Singapore. International Journal of Training and Development, 17(2), 116-134.
Saks, A., Salas, E., & Lewis, P. (2014). The transfer of training. International Journal of Training and Development, 18(2), 81-83.
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, Marital Status, and Health: Results from a National Longitudinal Survey Summary.