transferable skills

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?

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.