Your Transferable Skills: How to Identify & Leverage Skills to Advance Your Career

Interested in working in a new industry, but don’t have direct experience? Sometimes the barriers between you and your desired job seem too large to overcome, especially when your areas of expertise don’t line up with the requirements for the role you really want. But the truth is, you probably have many of the skills needed for a new job, you just need to think and talk about them in a new way. That’s the beauty of transferable skills.

What are transferable skills?

There are a few great ways to gain experience in a new industry in order to make a career transition. You can seek out volunteer work in that field, take a continuing education course, and attend industry events to meet new contacts and learn about new opportunities. But you may already have some transferable skills that you can repackage in your resume and cover letter to better fit the position you’re looking for in the eyes of the hiring manager. It’s all about how you present your skills.

According to professional career planner Dawn Rosenberg McKay, transferable skills can be defined as “the talents and abilities that can travel with you when you make a transition.” For example, let’s imagine you have a background in customer service working at a call center, and you’re now ready to follow your dream of working an administrative position in the nonprofit sector. Even though you don’t have nonprofit experience, you can highlight several of your existing skills in your resume, cover letter, and interview. Membership outreach, conflict resolution, time management, and top-notch organizational skills are all transferable in this context. You’re likely already more qualified than you thought!

Ways to identify your transferable skills

The first step of translating your past experience into a new role is pinpointing your transferable skills. McKay’s system involves six key skill categories to make it easier to identify yours:

  1. Basic: Basic skills are essential in any professional context. These include the ability to carry out written instructions and communicate with your team members.
  2. People: Interpersonal skills rank high on hiring managers’ wishlists. You’ll need to prove you excel at building relationships with clientele, navigating conflicts, and contributing to a friendly office culture.
  3. Management: Even if you’ve never been a manager per se, you may have experience overseeing the work of others in previous positions. Perhaps you’ve trained a new employee or helped set shift schedules. Remember to keep an open mind when looking for managerial experience in your past.
  4. Clerical: Most jobs include some level of clerical expertise such as proficiently using programs like Microsoft Office or using internal communications systems effectively.
  5. Research and planning: This can include skills as small as knowing which tasks to prioritize when juggling multiple customers’ needs or helping to strategize for a company event.
  6. Computer and technical: You may take your technological skills for granted, but remember that simple tasks like scanning and copying documents aren’t second nature to everyone. Let your techie side shine!

Another helpful resource to check out is Portland State University’s Transferable Skills Worksheet from their Advising and Career Services center. This worksheet also identifies several areas of expertise to take a look at when assessing your transferable skills. The areas they focus on are similar to McKay’s: human relations, design and planning, communication, organization and management, and research and planning. Use the bottom section of this worksheet to identify the transferable skills that are likely to stand out to hiring managers.

Show potential employers you’re a quick study

Remember, switching careers is never about starting from scratch. You’ve likely got a wealth of skills that you’d rely on to perform well in your new industry — it’s just a matter of figuring out what they are and conveying them accurately to prospective employers. Most employers expect that you will learn what you need to know on the job. Your attitude and willingness to be a quick study can go a long way once you land your interview.

Be as prepared as possible, but don’t exaggerate your qualifications, either. It can help to tell your interviewer what steps you plan to take in order to learn quickly on the job. For example, if you know your new role will require proficiency with Adobe software, you could watch a handful of YouTube tutorials before your interview so that you can explain what you know and what areas you need to work on.

Reframe your skill set to align with the job you want

Once you’ve completed the PSU worksheet, try this bonus exercise: Find a job posting that really gets your heart racing — a dream job that you’d be over the moon to begin today. Locate the requirements section of the job posting and see which transferable skill sets could apply based on McKay and PSU’s guidelines. Now make a list of your transferable skills that would help you perform well in this dream role. Keep a creative frame of mind. You may surprise yourself with just how much you can already do!

Articulating your transferable skills during your job search will let employers know that you’re adaptable and enthusiastic — two qualities that can even outweigh experience in some cases. If you’d like more information and exercises to help you in your job search, my book “Land Your Dream Job Anywhere” is a quick read. It’s full of resources from experts plus tips on networking, informational interviews, using your online presence to land your next job, and more.