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.

Employability & the Role of the University

Should universities teach students how to find a job? Are employment skills a necessary requirement for higher education to deliver today?

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

With so many new graduates each year, employers are spoilt for choice on who to give a job. If a company wants to recruit graduates, it’ll have no difficulty. If a company wants to recruit graduates with specific skills, the choice may be more difficult.

It’s like with A-levels. Universities find it increasingly difficult to work out which students to give offers to, because so many A-level students are receiving good grades. More unis are asking for at least one A* grade to help identify students of the highest calibre. But what happens when this grade fails to identify anything useful? And is this still a reasonable and effective method of finding the most able students?

There was a time when simply ‘being a graduate’ was enough to help you stand out from the crowd. Securing employment wasn’t as tough, because there were fewer graduates in the same position. Regardless of actual ability, having a degree was a notch above many.

Yet today, with so many graduates in the mix, employers look for more than a grade. Even a First at a prestigious university isn’t enough to grab whatever you desire.

Where does that leave you upon graduation? Should universities be responsible for ensuring a certain level of competence or employability before allowing you to graduate?

I’m not convinced it should be obligatory.  As a place of learning, university isn’t solely about business and career.  And it’s not possible to attain a particular level or type of ’employability’.

For instance, Boden & Nedeva highlight differences between Anglia Ruskin and Oxford:

“It is likely that local interpretations of notions of what makes graduates employable would be different for the University of Oxford and Anglia Ruskin University. The University of Oxford website does not contain an employability statement but, despite this, Oxford graduates are widely regarded as highly employable. Moreover, education at Oxford has not been changed in accordance with the employability agenda: broad-based knowledge and cultural capital are still the currencies that students accumulate.”
[Employing discourse: universities and graduate ’employability’]

Despite this, I believe students should be assured the following, whatever institution they attend:

  • Guaranteed availability of assistance and preparation for life after graduation if a student should request it;
  • Continued support from careers services, including a more detailed and personal service in some cases;
  • Clear information & explanation on improving employability and transition into work;
  • Before going in to HE, give students awareness that a degree is not an automatic passport to a job or career;
  • Give those pre-HE students guidance on the alternatives to university, along with general pros and cons to each.

I’m uncertain who would be responsible for supplying the resources for the last two points…universities, schools, government department, outsourced…?  But it is necessary.  Harriet Dunbar-Goddet at 1994 Group makes a simple, yet entirely valid point:

“Information is not enough, prospective students also need advice and guidance on how to make use of it.”

Any number of tools can be offered to students, but it counts for nothing if there is little awareness and an inability to make proper use of those tools.

In response to Harriet’s point, I said that it’s like being given all the separate components to build a car and then being expected to build it yourself with no fuss. You’d recognise some of the parts, but they would mean nothing in isolation.  There is similarity in this:

“As Tomlinson (2007) points out, students nowadays no longer anticipate a clear link between their merit in education and its reward in the labour market.”
[Less time to study, less well prepared for work, yet satisfied with higher education]

A selection of courses at some universities allow a year in relevant industry. This helps many graduates stand out both on their CV and in terms of actual experience, which is often lacking upon graduationBullock et al, say:

“Our study confirms other findings that an extended work placement enhances the likelihood of a good degree and preferred employment. Although the sandwich model preferred in this university is not perfect, the perception shared by students, academics and employers is that benefits outweigh drawbacks.”
[‘Work placement experience: should I stay or should I go?‘]

Even if work placements and generous employability support are provided by universities, is it enough?  A recent paper by Hinchliffe & Jolly examines broader knowledge, identity and well-being as possible keys to greater employability. They look at a more holistic approach whereby students focus not solely on employability, but on the bigger picture:

“Our studies suggest that universities and government would be better employed promoting student employability indirectly through the promotion of graduate identity and well-being (through the provision of opportunities for functioning) rather than directly through employability skills.”
[Graduate identity and employability]

Given the issues discussed above, it’s no wonder that a degree doesn’t automatically result in magical employment.

Boden & Nedeva are concerned that matters go beyond employability. Is higher education in danger of giving too narrow a focus to learning when it should be giving a wider perspective?

“Universities should be the critical friends to civil society, enlightening, informing and engaging, as part of their service. The growth within universities of pedagogical approaches based around the ‘delivery’ of ‘teaching materials’ in a narrow set of ‘skills and competencies’ bodes ill for the execution of this wider public intellectual role. This, we argue, is perhaps the most alarming of implications.” [Source]

And the take home point?

When you identify any goal, career or otherwise, strike out using your own initiative and find who and what can help you around your own actions.

Whatever your university has to offer, take responsibility for your future. Look beyond the grades and beyond the reputation of the institution.  Look to yourself and what you have to offer.  It’s often a lot more that you think.

TheUniversityBlog a year ago: October 2007

Welcome to October.  Hopefully most of you are happily settling in to the new academic year.  You lucky things!

October last year was a busy month on TheUniversityBlog.  I covered homesickness, conversation, employment, and money, among other things.  Here’s my pick of the highlights:

Help for the Hopelessly Homesick

Moving away from home is already a big move.  That’s before you consider the amount of change you’ll encounter in your first few months at uni.  Inevitably, homesickness happens.  This huge post covers all sorts of advice.

Turning Smalltalk into Bigtalk: 7 ways to find things to talk about

Striking up a conversation is difficult enough, but getting into a flow of ideas to chat about can be boggling.  With a few pointers, you can boggle no more.

Pushing Toward Employment Nirvana Series

Who says you have to wait for the end of your degree before seriously considering your future employment?  As an increasing number of students need to work part-time, the CV isn’t unheard of.  So why not make it as good as you can from the outset?

Your Money Series

The world’s economy may be looking scary, but you can do your bit to look after your own pennies…

Career Success: 10 Tips to Boost Your Employability

It’s time to take the future seriously.  What are your career goals?  Have you just graduated, or are you looking to take a career-based year out?  In terms of finding a job, there’s a lot to think about before taking the plunge.  Good job applications are not a complete mystery, but they do need a bit of your time and consideration, as well as a little bit of love to bring out your best.

Especially during economic downturn and unsettled times, it pays to show positivity toward your future plans and career prospects.

photo by katherine of chicago

photo by katherine of chicago

Here are 10 ways to boost your chances of job success: