We All Say We Value Transferable Skills, and Yet… 

Article main image
Jan 11, 2022
This article is part of a series called Strategy Safari.

Has there ever been a phrase as overused and under-defined as “transferable skills”?

It’s often raised up like some sort of universal solution to all your talent needs:

  • Looking for a career change? Highlight your transferable skills!
  • Can’t find talent to fill your roles? Hire people with transferable skills!
  • Need to create a project team and can’t hire new workers? Leverage transferable skills!

It always sounds good. It definitely seems like it should be successful. After all, everyone can do something — no one is completely without skills, as much as you’d like to claim they are. It’s just a matter of finding a way to make those skills work for you!

I love the idea of transferable skills. I credit transferable skills for allowing me to work in a number of different roles across numerous industries throughout my career. Without transferable skills, I wouldn’t have the job I have today (and I freaking love my job). I mean, I was going to be a high-school social-studies teacher, for goodness’ sake. 

I was lucky, though. I ended up with recruiters who looked beyond titles, hiring managers who understood the skills I brought to the table, and I knew how to position my background and abilities in a way that translated what I could do to the posted position. 

That’s a lot of moving pieces that had to fall into place before I was able to make transferable skills work for me.

The reality is that most recruiters and hiring managers do not have the bandwidth, ability, or will to consider what “transferable skills” really mean to their hiring needs. And many would-be candidates struggle to showcase their abilities through resumes or online profiles. Unfortunately, this can result in a lot of quality candidates missing their chance because neither side can fully communicate their needs and capabilities.

If you’re serious about being open to hiring employees with transferable skills, here are some specific, concrete steps you can take:

Define skills. One of the challenges with transferable skills is that there is no universal taxonomy for skills and proficiency levels. It’s getting better, but it’s not great. Define the skills in your organization and share those with candidates. Use industry-accepted sites to help you.

Lead with skills. Too many employers focus on the title when posting positions and screening applicants. Job titles are incredibly specific to each organization and industry and are therefore not a reliable screening variable. Recruiters and hiring managers need to break down the role to the core skills needed to perform the work and use that as the basis for selection and screening.

Embrace skills assessments. I have a love-hate relationship with assessments. Too many organizations try to use personality assessments as a go-no go factor to select candidates, rather than as a data point in a larger picture. Skills (as opposed to personality) assessments, however, can be very helpful. They allow candidates to demonstrate that they can perform a task, regardless of what their resume says. 

I am a huge fan of skills assessments, especially ones that are practical rather than online. If you need a welder, have them show you they can arc and spot weld. If you need an editor, have them edit an article. 

Educate everyone involved. Knowing how certain skills translate across industries can be difficult (see point about lack of universal taxonomy above). This is especially true when recruiting veterans. The military has very specific language around rankings and tasks, and many veterans coming into the private sector simply list their military career without knowing how to explain what a 15W, Radio Operator does. And non-military hiring managers and recruiters won’t know, either. 

Luckily, there are great tools out there to help! Crosswalk is a free resource that translates the codes from military, DOT, Occupational Handbook, RAPIDS, and others into skills and responsibilities. Recruiters and hiring managers should have this tool bookmarked. And I recommend linking to it from your company’s career site, as well, to help applicants understand how their backgrounds may fit into different jobs.

Be open-minded. Above all else, recruiters and hiring managers need to change their mindset and look for potential and skills vs a perfect fit. I know, some of you will complain that you need someone who can hit the ground running, and I get that. 

But guess what? Every new employee needs time to acclimate and figure out what’s going on. Gallup reports that it takes 12 months on average for new joiners to be proficient. So you’re going to be training people anyway. Give someone a chance.

As quit rates continue to climb and changes in the way we work continue to impact companies, the only way to find workers is to embrace transferable skills. In practice, not just theory. 

This article is part of a series called Strategy Safari.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!