The great transferable skills myth

I’ve spent half my career believing that the important skills in life and work are generic. From fundamental life skills, like being able to listen to and communicate with other people, to the ability to analyse a situation and think logically about it, I’ve told myself and the staff I’ve been responsible for that these are competencies that will always be in demand, and can be applied in any work or personal circumstances. Demonstrate that you have developed these and other similar tools, and that will be more important to prospective employers than the specific environment or sector in which you established that competence. Well, I’m beginning to question that assumption.

In the jargon of these things, these generic attributes are called “transferable skills”. Of course, if you work in nuclear physics then the specific technical skills are always going to be the ones you need. If we want them at all, we certainly don’t want the new nuclear power stations we’re about to have foisted on us designed by people who knew nothing about radiation but were good at getting along with their colleagues. But I don’t work in nuclear physics, and I assumed that HR skills, the ability to motivate and lead my team, project management of information technology, developing strategy, and the financial skill to manage a £5M budget would be as useful in, say, the management of the health service as in the management of education.

But apparently not. Recruitment consultants nearly always play safe, and safe means knowing that the candidates they’re putting forward not only have the right skills, but have developed them in the right places. In a recession there will always be a queue of people who have worked in exactly the same sector as the new job is in, and who’ll not need any settling-in period whilst they get to grips with a new context. They’ll be ready to hit the ground running, as is apparently always so vital an attribute. I’ve always thought that the most likely consequence of hitting the ground running is to fall flat on your face, but what do I know?

So my skills might be acknowledged as being of a high order, but they ain’t transferring anywhere.


5 thoughts on “The great transferable skills myth

  1. I’ve always registered with recruitment consultants when job hunting and they’ve always been completely useless. I’ve only ever got a job through applying direct and telling my potential employer how much I really want it.

  2. Hi Charlotte! “I’ve only ever got a job through applying direct…” I’d agree with that from my own experience, too. However, very few of the jobs I’m going for are not mediated by some recruitment consultant. It seems to be an unfortunate consequence of the director level market – which is not a level I’ve ever needed to compete at before!! 🙂

  3. My experience relates strongly to that stated – I know I have some really good skills that could transfer to so many other areas but because I cant tick the boxes on essential criteria for job specs, I think people are not considering me even if I do a good supporting statement. And just because I dont have a degree does not mean that I am not educated or intelligent!

  4. Lola P – I couldn’t agree more. I don’t have a degree (or even A-levels) and it’s very frustrating when you know your CV is going in the bin because you don’t tick the box even though you know you can do the job. And well.

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