How to identify your transferable skills (and why they’re so important)

A letter in the Telegraph reads:

SIR – As a mathematician, I would like to share a numerical insight.

I always remind colleagues on an interview panel that the only significant numbers on an academic certificate are those pertaining to the date.

This would be funnier if it didn’t make an uncomfortable — albeit generalised and not entirely reasonable — point.

photo by Let Ideas Compete

photo by Let Ideas Compete

In the ever-changing realm of higher education, the year in which you graduate can lead employers to assume many things.  Things that won’t always be accurate.

Clearly, you need to combat these assumptions. You also need to stand out amongst the sea of graduates that wash in to the jobs market each year.  Because the number of graduates out there doesn’t matter compared to the range of skills you hold.  Many people rarely show their skills off, selling themselves as individuals.

Transferable skills are the accomplishments and understandings you have developed in various situations that can be used in many other situations.

“A comprehensive definition [of transferable skills] was provided by the former Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) in which transferable skills were defined as those skills that are central to occupational competence in all sectors and at all levels (DfEE, 1997), and include project management, leadership, communication, working in teams and problem solving.” [Source]

Transferable skills go beyond what you learn in a formal context.  Everything you do has the potential to help you gain and develop transferable skills.  Examples include:

  • Presentation – Clear communication to others, visual representation of concepts, passing knowledge over to others clearly.
  • Computer / Social Networking – Adept with technology, communicative, involved.
  • Administration / Organisation – Prioritisation, maintaining control, strong time management.
  • Literacy / Writing – Make points clearly, argue with reason, persuade and convince, communicate information to a range of people.
  • Evaluation / Critical Thinking – Provide solutions, take a broad perspective, confidently engage with concepts.
  • Information Gathering / Research – Quickly uncover what’s important, know where to go and how to find information, able to assess a broad selection of ideas.
  • Numeracy / Economic / Monetary – Mathematical solutions, data processing, interpret/produce/explain statistics.
  • People / Groups / Teamwork – Communication, empathy, dealing with others, open both to debate and collaborate.
  • Customer Service – Helping others, calm under pressure, public facing, listening to others.
  • Management / Past Responsibility – Delegate, set up projects, deal with difficult situations.
  • Communication / Verbal / Explanation – Discuss clearly, deal with wide range of people, put concepts across competently.

The above list is a vague start to all the competencies you may have and/or may need.  You may see a list of skills required in a job advert and feel you don’t have many of them.  But you may be more able than you think.  You may already have — or be close to having — all sorts of skills without realising.

Now is the time to identify your future from your past.  Consider your achievements, however minor, and give yourself credit where it’s due.

For a start, don’t simply highlight past roles and describe jobs. In order to shine, you should highlight your achievements.

By highlighting your transferable skills, you’re creating an identity for yourself.  According to Hinchliffe & Jolly, there is “a four-stranded concept of identity that comprises value, intellect, social engagement and performance”.  When looking to show off your skills, consider the four strands with these questions:

  1. Value = What can you bring to the role/company?
  2. Intellect = How academically prepared are you to take on the responsibility?
  3. Social engagement = How involved are you already, why are you doing this, and what potential links can you bring with you?
  4. Performance = To what extent can you maintain progress, continue to improve and enhance, and deliver what is required?

Get as much as you can down on paper so you can see exactly where you stand.  Leicester has a useful SWOT analysis document you can download so you can start identifying your skills, employment goals, and the potential weaknesses you need to address.

photo by 姒儿喵喵

photo by 姒儿喵喵

Once you start uncovering these transferable skills, relate them to opportunities.  Identify what each employer is looking for and tailor applications so you’re getting the right points across each time.  For even more help on what you can demonstrate with key transferable skills, Cambridge explains further via their Skills Portal.

You may not yet be able to identify what you are passionate about in a career context, but you can still get a sense of what is important to you and how you meet particular criteria.  I’ve sold myself short at times in the past and it’s usually down to a lack of preparation or misjudgement, not embarrassed modesty.

But it’s important you don’t sell yourself short. Universities can’t guarantee you a clear path to a job after you graduate.  Even if “employability is a performative function of universities” (Boden & Nedeva), a broad brush idea of employability for all graduates cannot work in reality.  The term ’employability’ is subjective, as is the term ‘transferable skills’ .  To be employable does not mean to hold a rigid set of qualities and achievements.  Not for the employee and not for the employer.

In which case, should universities teach students how to find a job?  Is it important for your institution to give you the tools to go out into the world with the confidence to find employment with ease?

With marketisation of higher education looking to grow and as students are labelled even more as customers, one expectation will be to make each new graduate ready for the employment market.  Prokou states that “the special emphasis on employability is strongly associated with the emergence of the ‘market-driven’ or ‘pragmatic’ university”.

In the circumstances, there is an increasing trend in supplying students with ‘corporate skills‘ while they study, in preparation for when they graduate.  Even arts and humanities subjects will cover certain business ground to help boost transferable skills to the workplace.

Newell Hampson-Jones explains that arts and humanities already cover important skills that can be transferred to the workplace, even when they’re not flagged as such:

“My degree taught me to analyse and look for unique perspectives of situations. I understood how to communicate, how to understand and analyse what stakeholders I work with need from me. Most useful of all, my study has helped me understand how to adapt to and thrive in different situations, working cultures and job roles.”

Should you view your degree as nothing more than a further step toward a possible career?  Before you do, consider the possible limitations.  Politics lecturer, Neil Davenport, argues:

“Education is not a process of spreading transferable skills to the next generations. Students are not automatons who can be programmed with the requisite skills for a working life. In developing young people’s minds, a rounded education should give them the ability to pick up skills that they need when they need them and to work out problems both intellectually and practically.”

Nevertheless, more students attend university in order to increase employability and to gain transferable skills.  As Nicolescu and Păun suggest:

“Obtaining employment after graduation is conditioned by having the abilities employers need and ask for. And in some instances, the ability of an institution to ensure employability has become an indicator of institutional quality (Maharasoa & Hay, 2001).”

So how do transferable skills fare?  Is a general set of skills the best way to stretch you further as you progress past graduation?  Or should you be more specifically trained up?  Are you a lifelong learner, or are you learning a lifelong trade?

In most cases now, general transferable skills are more relevant to employers, even when you study toward a specific vocational degree:

“Employers want adaptive recruits, people who can rapidly fit into the workplace culture, work in teams, exhibit interpersonal skills, communicate well, take on responsibility, perform efficiently and effectively, they want adaptable people, people who can use their abilities and skills to make the organization evolve through bright ideas and persuading colleagues to adopt new approaches and they want transformative employees, people who can anticipate and lead change, who have higher level skills, such as analysis, critique, synthesis, etc. (Woodley & Brennan, 2000).” [Source]

Transferable skills are, therefore, a big deal.  Even if you’re only at uni to learn, you will develop all manner of abilities and extend your skillset for the better.

Even if some employers really do think the only significant numbers on your degree are those pertaining to date, your ability to showcase your transferable skills will give employers the real story of what you gained in higher education.


  1. Thanks for this post Martin. It is extremely timely as I was just doing some reading up about employability. I’ve read about all sorts of things universities do to help students with their employability, the University Bath itself is well know for placements. Surrey is also well-known, toppign league tables for employability, interestingly they have rolled placements out to all their departments, including English – of interest to you and Newell re. arts and humanities perhaps, but I can’t find the link to the article now 😦

  2. I am so thankful for my uni degree which has enabled me to use a set of general skills to accommodate a host of jobs. And, to now be self employed. Learning how to learn has made me much more confident about areas of work I can apply myself to. Not that uni is the only place this will occur~ but it is a viable option for those of us who enjoy reading and discussion as learning methods.

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