When Transferable Skills…Aren’t

My last post looked at transferable skills and telling your story. But are transferable skills what they’re cracked up to be? Are they truly transferable? Are they actually skills?

When employers look for these common traits, does that mean everyone is looking for the same thing? Nope.

Can things like customer service, motivation, and self-awareness really be classed as skills? These ‘skills’ are generic, thus problematic.

Maze (photo by MarcelGermain) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Which direction to turn? Where is the context? (photo by MarcelGermain) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When it’s hard to identify your transferable skills, how they came about, and what they have helped you to achieve, does that make them less than transferable? Creative Studies lecturer, Mimi Thebo, sums it up neatly:

“So where does it all go wrong? Well, the problem with transferable skills, is that they don’t. Transfer, that is. People tend to associate a skill with the context in which it was learned. Take the Creative Writing workshop as an example. Many of the skills and abilities mentioned above are learned in workshop. But this is a very restricted setting, and students may feel these skills are uniquely valuable in this setting. Indeed, they may not be aware of the skills and attributes they have acquired.” [SOURCE] [My emphasis]

Moving from one context to another is a challenge in itself. You’re telling a different story each time. Where you place yourself in the context is just as important as considering where other people might place you. That takes more than transferring a skill.

Multiple contexts are even more confusing. Take customer service. Who is the customer? What is your aim?

I have used so-called customer service skills in so many ways over the years that I know how different each situation is. One size does not fit all. Whether it’s answering queries from household-name clients, dealing with questions from library customers, sorting out issues with students I’m responsible for, or helping an individual with a request via a phone call I wasn’t expecting, these situations require different approaches and cannot be boiled down to a single ‘customer service skill’.

While there is overlap, there is also a lot of subjectivity. We are dealing with constructs.

Skills are particular abilities and often measurable in one way or another. There is still subjectivity in skills, but not to the same extent as more generic terms. Take what I said yesterday:

“So much potential, so much choice, so many stories to tell.”

“You can highlight your strengths and transferable skills in numerous ways. You have so many stories to tell. Which stories are you telling?”

Transferable skills are ‘soft’. The stories you tell make a difference, the way those stories are interpreted by others make a difference, what people are looking for in you makes a difference…Everything makes a difference.

Therefore, nothing is directly transferable either for you or for those you are communicating with. By the same token, this highlights a problem with the term ‘skill’.

Identifying what you can do, what you have achieved, and how you are developing all require skill, but not a wholesale reliance on a particular set of criteria as if they form a bunch of boxes that can be easily ticked off, one by one.

Go back to where I quoted Prospects at the beginning of my last post:

“Every vacancy requires a unique set of competencies but some transferable skills are commonly requested”

These traits may be commonly requested, but that doesn’t mean an employer has a common view of those traits. Their view of these skills is no less unique than the set of more specific competencies they have listed.

When you don’t take this into account, you risk relying on a false understanding of ‘transferable skills’.

When you do take this into account, you are in a better place to define yourself through both using transferable skills and rejecting their existence at the very same time.

Patchwork (photo by leslie.keating) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Create your own patchwork (photo by leslie.keating) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Find and Highlight Your Transferable Skills

You develop at uni in so many ways. It just happens. You won’t notice it the whole time.

Not being aware of all the skills you’re acquiring makes it difficult to talk about those skills. But these are important for the future, especially when you’re looking for work. As Prospects explains, “Every vacancy requires a unique set of competencies but some transferable skills are commonly requested”.

Paintbrushes (photo by Viewminder) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So much potential, so much choice, so many stories to tell. (photo by Viewminder)

To get you thinking about what you have already achieved and what else you might achieve over these years, here are a few thoughts on those common transferable skills and how you can point them out:

Willingness to learn

You’re working off your own back. The more you put in, the more you’re likely to get out. There’s more to uni than grades. What other activities did you invest time in to learn and develop from? How did you go about discovering new things?


University offers so much in one place. But it doesn’t come to you. Think of it as a bunch of opt-in stuff, not opt-out. No matter what some people might say, students aren’t spoon-fed. That’s nonsense. The most successful students are generally the ones who take their actions into their own hands and seek out new things. Take time to point out what you opted in for at uni, what drove you to it, and how you achieved in that guise. This required initiative.


Words, gestures, and listening. Yes, even listening is communication.

Words: Your coursework, presentations, and exams improve your relationship with words. Blog posts and articles in the student newspaper are useful too. The more you read and write, the better you will communicate.

Gestures: How you present yourself at uni (and on social networks) is important. How people see you interact with others makes a difference.

Listening: The world doesn’t revolve around you. University is a place of debate, discovery, getting involved, and having fun. That requires a population of more than one. Be ready to ask questions, and also to stay quiet and let others do the talking. Your voice needs to be heard, so long as you show an interest in hearing other voices in the mix.


Spending all that time on study off your own back requires a teeny tiny bit of self-awareness. You need to understand what makes you tick, how to push yourself harder, and where you fit in within the grand scheme of things. A lack of self-awareness means you can’t separate your ‘super powers’ from your ‘kryptonite’.


The big bad ‘real world’ requires a lot of working with other people. And, believe it or not, people are brilliant and helpful and kind and necessary. When you gel with people, from a simple smile to some complicated coursework, you go places. Positive places. Whenever you have worked with other people and achieved something, highlight how your team was awesome and how you were awesome within the team.


A successful leader does not act like a leader. Your uni years aren’t about managing people, but you have many opportunities to lead the way through teamwork, as mentioned above, and through the projects you get involved with. Be proud of this; it’s not boastful, it’s identifying your ability to follow and be followed. A useful two-way process.

Interpersonal skills

Living with others, communicating with others, involving yourself in the plans of others, welcoming others into your own plans… It’s hard to go through uni without dealing with other people. If you ignore everyone else as you study, you’re missing out on a lot, even if you come out with a shiny First Class Honours. A degree isn’t personal. People are.

Customer service

All this working with other people means you get to know what other people want and how other people act. Hopefully!

We’re all different. We all like to be treated in a particular way and to be listened to in an appropriate way. Give people the feeling that you have their interests at heart and not just your own.

Trampling over others may show a type of strength. But holding them up with you is a sign of both strength and support. Again, make it two-way. Show that you’re looking for win/win situations.


Things don’t always go our way. That shouldn’t be the end of the world. Hectic plans and last minute changes require a willingness to adapt. University is a great place to find out just how much you need to adapt, because you don’t know what’s coming around the corner.

Housemate problems, low grades, conflicting schedules, surprise tests, illness, too much partying… There’s no end to the stuff that can bite you on the bum. You can take charge of difficult situations, but you cannot control them.

When you take charge, you take change in your stride. Not because you know what happens next, but because you’re being flexible. Think of a time when you were faced with a dilemma that altered the direction you thought you were headed. How did you deal with it? What helped you shine, despite the problems you faced?


Three or more years of study shouldn’t be taken lightly. Your involvement in clubs and societies should be taken seriously (even the fun groups!). The links you make within Students’ Union activities and with university staff need constant nurturing. Your part-time job can be more than just a way of making a few quid.

When you’re not motivated by what you do, it shows. Enthusiasm is hard to fake.

Most of the stuff you do at uni should be because you want to do it. That way, even the tough stuff has a purpose. You’re willing to see it through. This level of commitment will put a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eyes. When people see that you take pride in what you do, your value shines through too.

When it comes to careers, your commitment will be clear by what you have done in the run up to your applications and introductions. Don’t just say you love what you do, prove it!

Problem solving

Where do I begin with this one? How much of your life at uni DOESN’T require problem solving? Lateral thinking is a big deal. Creative ways of getting from one place to another are just as helpful as the practical ways. Check out these links for more information:

You can highlight your strengths and transferable skills in numerous ways. You have so many stories to tell. Which stories are you telling?