Identifying and Communicating Transferable Skills

Dec 6, 2020

Gone are the days of landing a job right out of secondary school, trade school, the military, or university, and remaining in that job until retirement. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May 2020 that Americans born between 1980 and 1984 held an average of 8.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 32. The Bureau also reported that 35.5% of men and 39.1% of women held individual jobs for less than a year from 2005 to 2017.

That’s more than one in three people changing jobs every year. 

Are these folks getting a new job within their field, for example, a lateral change to a competing employer or a promotion within the same firm? Or are they changing careers entirely?

Likely, it is a mixture of both. It was for me. 

Fresh out of college, I started my career as a public school music teacher and taught in six different schools. I then left education to work as a machinist making bagpipes for a few years, then went to law school and practised law for fifteen years. I am now working as a content specialist at Sagapixel, a full-service international marketing agency that often works with lawyers and law firms. 

While these positions might seem radically different from one another, the change from one to the next was pretty organic and based on my skillset and my interests. In other words, I was able to leverage the skills learned in previous positions to obtain the next position.

This article will identify the transferable skills a job seeker would be wise to cultivate and learn to express to potential employers, both in the interview process and throughout their tenure of employment, however long that is. 

What Exactly Are “Transferable Skills?”

Transferable skills are the aspects of your demeanour, behaviour, and ethic that any employer looks for in an employee, regardless of field or industry.

Don’t worry – this article is not in any way a “Miss Manners” guide to how to act in an interview or at work. Rather, it is a shortlist of five skills you can actively practice to increase your value in any position in any company. 

Exercise Soft Skills

“Soft skills” are the skills one hopefully develops over time that provide the grease that oils the machine that is interpersonal relationships. It is more than saying “please” and “thank you” and “good morning,” although those are all necessary when appropriate. It is taking people as they are and approaching them politely with respect, empathy, and patience.

In a work environment, these skills may be summed up as “professionalism.” It requires a level of emotional detachment and self-control because your co-workers will inevitably say something that offends you or irritates you. Having soft skills means you can deal with that in a non-confrontational way.

A good way to practice soft skills is to first commit to making your at-work interactions go as smoothly and productively as possible. Next, promise yourself you will take a breath before responding to anything that gave rise to a negative feeling. This will give you a moment to choose an appropriate response if you respond at all after your deliberate pause. 

Be Eager to Learn

Remaining open to criticism can be difficult, but if you practice maintaining a calm and measured attitude at work, you can develop the habit of taking criticism constructively and learning from it. This too requires some detachment from an emotional response, such as defensiveness, to avoid appearing to push back or actually pushing back. 

Welcome input. When you receive it, take that breath, and be sure to repeat what you have heard back so you know you’ve understood your critic. Always thank people for offering their input, even if ultimately you do not find it valuable.

Embrace Diversity and Collaboration

As Americans, we are raised to think of ourselves as “rugged individualists.” Culturally, it is a hindrance to collaboration and all of its benefits. Moreover, Americans are in the unfortunate habit of keeping company with those who think as they do. Our current political situation is caused by this.

If you are guilty of both or either of these, you must change your mind. When a group of diverse individuals gathers to brainstorm, formally or informally, the things learned from each other and the conclusions drawn are exponentially more useful to the company. Why? Because people who are different from us bring things out in us that people with the same worldview do not. 

Practice this by seeking out people who are different from you and engage them in conversation. Expect this to be challenging at first, but know that sooner or later you will come to welcome the burst of creativity you feel when you are exposed to diverse points of view and have to respond.

Cultivate a Reputation for Dependability and Integrity

Put your money where your mouth is. Always do what you say you are going to do. Do not be careless in this regard. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation for dependability and integrity and only one slip-up to destroy that reputation.

If you cannot complete an assigned task for any reason, whether it be a lack of time or knowledge, seek help from your supervisor, manager, or boss. Asking for clarification or more time is not a sign of incompetence, rather, it conveys to your superior that you care about the quality of your work and want to get it right.

Maintain Good Humor

Also called “maturity” by some, “good humour” is more of an approach than specific behaviour. It is an antiquated way of describing a sense of positive, calm, assured purpose.

The term “good humour” reminds me of what comedian and actor Mike Myers described as some of the training he received while part of the Second City comedy troupe. He said he was required to shift his mode of response to people from “No, but….” to “Yes, and….” This apparently helps the comedy improvisation process. It will also help you have constructive conversations with your co-workers and superiors.

Things go wrong, emergencies arise, and people say unfortunate things at work. If you meet all of this with good humour and respond to them appropriately, you will be most effective.

How Do I Show That I Have Transferable Skills?

Dress for the Job

The way you dress will depend upon the type of position you seek. A rule of thumb is to dress slightly more formally for the interview than you expect to dress for the job itself. This conveys an attitude of respect for the interviewer’s time and thankfulness for the opportunity to win the position.

For example, someone interviewing to be a painter’s apprentice might wear khaki pants and a button-down shirt. Someone interviewing for a position as a bank teller might wear a suit.

Be Conservative With Spoken and Body Language

At least at first, until you get the measure of the interviewer, rein in your sense of humour and avoid talking with your hands. If the interviewer opens the door to amusing anecdotes, feel free to enjoy them and contribute. 

Why? Because the interviewer is there to do a job and you are there to get one. Do not distract the interviewer from the process of assessing you and your qualifications. If that assessment does not include small talk or banter, so be it. Let the interviewer set the tone.

Answer Questions Directly, in Kind, and Follow Up With Examples

Be sure to do this. Failure to answer an interviewer’s question with a direct answer can result in rejection. I know this from experience.

Whatever you are asked, respond in kind and use an example from your previous work experience. For example, if asked whether you work well on a team, you might say, 

“Early in my career, I was often too impatient to make the most of working on a team. At that time. I naively believed that if I wanted something done right, I’d best do it myself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn to work well on a team and to value others’ input because the result of teamwork is invariably better than anything I could come up with on my own. What sort of team project do you anticipate I will be a part of in this position?”

This answer gives the interviewer a sense of you and your willingness to grow and tells her that you welcome a team project.

Be Prepared

This should go without saying, but I myself have interviewed people who knew too little about the firm and the position sought to go into the interview. Of course, Google your potential employer. If possible, talk with someone who works there about their experience and what they would have done differently at first, given the chance to go back. Let that inform your questions for the interviewer.

Be Authentic

Last but not least, don’t try to be someone or something you are not. Claiming more experience or training than you actually have will get you into trouble. Putting on airs will be detected immediately by a good interviewer. 

Just be yourself and let that shine, without actually flying your freak flag (see above – that is not conservative). If you’ve cultivated transferable skills and the job is a good match for you, that will be enough.

Last Words about Interviews

While these suggestions should help you if you act on them, not all of them will be appropriate for every job seeker or appeal to every employer every time. 

I remember interviewing with a bankruptcy judge for a clerkship following law school. On paper, I was the perfect candidate: soon-to-be honours graduate, a volunteer with the Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project, a paralegal with a bankruptcy firm. The judge even had a reputation for hiring second-career law clerks who were a bit older than most. I felt confident going in.

I was a complete dud. The judge frowned and crossed his arms from the first moment, barked questions at me, and shook his head when I responded. I assumed at the time he was employing some bizarre test of my resolve, but in truth, I had no idea what he was about and still don’t. 

While I didn’t get the job, I did learn two valuable lessons. The first was that I could not please all the people, all the time, no matter how many transferable skills I had or how qualified I was. The second was that I could still please myself, regardless. I was pleased that I held my own during that interview and did not rise to his bait. 

Mismatches between you and a potential job will inevitably occur, so accept the interviews that do not result in a hire not as failures but as learning opportunities. Remember that the person you must always satisfy is yourself, regardless of what job you currently have or currently seek. 

Strive to be the highest-functioning you that you can be, and always be authentic. You will find an employer who values you for who you are and who you are becoming.

About the Author
Laura J. Neville, Esq. works at Sagapixel as a legal content specialist. Her current projects are learning about SEO and law firm marketing.

Featured photo by: August de Richelieu from Pexels

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