Transferable Skills: What Are They and Why Are They Important?
Now more than ever, it feels like the only constant in life is change. The ever-increasing use of digital technology and the effects of automation – often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution – are transforming the jobs market and there is growing demand for ‘transferable’ skills. A recent report from the CBI predicts that nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030.
In the past, many people worked for the same employer for their entire career. Nowadays, the situation is very different, with life assurance firm LV reporting that UK workers change jobs on average every five years.
As a result, we all need to develop our knowledge and skills throughout our working lives. Continuous learning has become the norm. Upskilling (refreshing or developing skills to keep up to date with technological and business developments1) and retraining (the process of learning a new vocation or skillset1) are both essential elements of a successful career.
This article examines the importance of transferable skills in today’s rapidly changing jobs market and considers:
- What we mean by transferable skills.
- Real-life examples that illustrate transferable skills in practice.
- Why transferable skills are so crucial for individuals and employers.
- Strategies for developing transferable skills.
What Are Transferable Skills?
Transferable skills are abilities and talents which are relevant to a wide range of different jobs and industries. Given the current pace of change, they are the skills that will be most critical for your future career success.
Transferable skills can be ‘hard’ skills (objective abilities that can be taught and measured – for example, data analysis2), or ‘soft’ skills (sometimes referred to as ‘interpersonal’ or ‘people’ skills, these are subjective and harder to measure – for example, teamwork2).
According to the Niagara Institute, the top transferable skills which appear consistently in studies and articles are:
- Adaptability and resilience.
- Critical thinking.
- Creativity and innovation.
- Emotional intelligence.
- Teamwork and collaboration.
It can sometimes be difficult to think of real-life examples that demonstrate our transferable skills, as we often use these skills without realising it. For example, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes when dealing with a complaint is an example of showing empathy, which is a type of emotional intelligence. Similarly, understanding your own emotional response to situations and considering how your behaviour affects others is an example of self-awareness, another form of emotional intelligence.
Transferable skills can be developed in other ways, such as at school, college, or university, through voluntary work and placements, and even in social settings – for example, helping to organise events and playing an active role in a community group.
More real-life examples of transferable skills include:
- Adaptability and resilience – how do you adjust your plans when circumstances beyond your control lead to delays – for example, being unable to get hold of goods and materials?
- Critical thinking – how do you approach problems in your day-to-day work – for example, deciding on the most suitable parts to use when fixing a plumbing issue?
- Initiative – have you ever resolved a problem before you’ve been asked to do so? Initiative is about independently assessing the situation and coming up with solutions.
- Resourcefulness – this is similar to initiative – for example, are there times when you’ve been short-staffed and had to think on your feet to find ways to maintain high levels of customer service?
- Creativity and innovation – have you ever suggested changes to an existing process which have led to improvements for the business and its customers?
- Leadership – if you’re not in a role where you lead or manage a team, are there other activities which you organise – for example, team celebrations, company Christmas parties, and fundraising events?
- Communication – can you think of a situation when you used ‘active listening’ skills to identify a customer’s wants and needs – for example, providing high-quality care to service users in a health and social care setting?
- Teamwork and collaboration – can you identify a time when you stepped in and helped a colleague who was struggling to do something?
Why Are Transferable Skills Important?
Job vacancies in the UK are at record levels, with the number of vacancies exceeding one million for the first time since records began in 2001. It can be tempting to think that transferable skills are somehow less valuable than technical skills; however, research shows that transferable skills are increasingly attractive to employers and highly sought after.
For employers, transferable skills signal that someone is more likely to make a positive contribution from day one, as they can put their skills to use across a range of job roles and industries. For example, communication skills developed through dealing with customers in a hospitality environment can be applied to a different sector, such as working with children and young people in an education setting.
Employers will still need to provide job-specific training and support – however, individuals can draw on their prior experiences when they encounter unfamiliar situations and apply transferable skills to deal with challenges they face. This is good for the individual’s own professional development and is also beneficial for employers, as it can improve productivity and reduce training costs.
According to a 2019 UK government survey, employers spend an average of £2,540 annually on a new trainee, compared with an average of £1,530 on an existing employee. With the survey also showing that lack of funds is a significant barrier to providing more training, it’s no surprise to learn that transferable skills are in demand.
The reality is that everyone benefits from developing transferable skills. In the current climate, there are signs that employers are becoming more flexible and adaptable when recruiting staff. Considering an individual’s transferable skills during the selection process is one example of this and striving to find the ‘perfect fit’ may not always be realistic, or necessary.
However, even though vacancies are at an all-time high, there is still stiff competition for some roles. Highlighting your transferable skills during the application process, and providing real-life examples that show where you have demonstrated these skills, will help you to stand out from the crowd. It could even mean the difference between securing your dream job or missing out.
Research also reveals that technical skills are becoming obsolete increasingly quickly with the ‘half-life’ or longevity of skills falling to around five years. Developing transferable skills such as adaptability and resilience will foster the mindset and attitudes that will enable you to acquire and master new skills throughout your career, regardless of job role or industry. As skills needs continue to evolve and change, the importance of transferable skills should not be underestimated.
How Do I Develop Transferable Skills?
The good news is there are a whole host of ways to develop your transferable skills. These include learning ‘on the job’, formal education programmes, and online, face to face, or blended training courses.
Self-assessments and checklists are a great way to reflect on your strengths and identify areas for development. You could also try writing a Professional Development Plan to help you set goals and objectives. Giving yourself targets to work towards keeps you motivated and helps you to recognise and celebrate your achievements along the way.
Here are more practical suggestions to help you develop specific transferable skills:
- Adaptability and resilience – work on your mental fitness. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s human nature to feel disappointment. Techniques like mindfulness and positive affirmations can help you to maintain a sense of perspective and bounce back quickly from challenges. Our article on Resilience in the Workplace is a good starting point if you want to learn more about this.
- Initiative – focus on solutions. When you’re faced with a problem or an unfamiliar situation, first try to think of different ways to resolve this yourself, weighing up the pros and cons of each option. Then, present these to your manager and decide together on the best course of action.
- Leadership – go above and beyond. Ask your manager to give you extra responsibility, such as the opportunity to manage a particular project or piece of work.
- Teamwork and collaboration – seek out opportunities beyond your own team. Volunteer for projects and tasks which require you to work with colleagues from other teams and departments. This will also help to improve your communication skills.
If you’re looking to progress to a new role, or change careers altogether, remember to include transferable skills on your CV. Give concrete examples of when and how you’ve used particular skills, focusing on how this helped you to achieve successful outcomes. If you’re writing a CV for the first time, our article contains lots of useful advice and tips.
Transferable skills continue to develop throughout our lives and careers, so it can be helpful to build up a portfolio of evidence from which you can select the examples that are best suited to the role you’re applying for.
Transferable skills are vital in today’s fast-changing jobs market. Hopefully this article has clarified some of the main transferable skills that employers are looking for, and helped you to understand how to demonstrate your own transferable skills when applying for jobs.
- Communication Skills Online Training Course
- Leadership and Management Online Training Course
- Resilience Training Online Course
- Educating for the modern world – Learning for life https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/5723/learning-for-life-report.pdf
- Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference? https://www.thebalancecareers.com/hard-skills-vs-soft-skills-2063780