How to Identify and Talk About Your Transferable Skills, with Zach Moore

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You want to switch careers or fields, but you aren’t sure if you have the skills necessary to be successful. What do you do? According to Find Your Dream Job guest Zach Moore, you take the time to figure out which skills you can transfer to that new field. What skills do you possess in terms of working with others, managing projects, or recording data and analytics? Zach also suggests thinking of a job description as a “cry for help,” and figuring out how your skills can answer that cry and solve that problem for the company. 

About Our Guest:

Zach Moore is the career pathways manager at College Possible. It’s a nonprofit that coaches students from low-income communities to and through college.

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 456:

How to Identify and Talk About Your Transferable Skills, with Zach Moore

Airdate: June 26, 2024

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

You’re moving into a new career.

How do you show employers that what you did in your old occupation applies in your new field?

Zach Moore joins us to discuss how to identify and talk about your transferable skills.

He’s the career pathways manager at College Possible.

It’s a nonprofit that coaches students from low-income communities to and through college.

He joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Well, let’s get going, Zach. Let’s start with definitions. What do you mean exactly when you talk about transferable skills?

Zach Moore:

I love this question because transferable skills represent one of three categories of skills that we like to think about in the career development space, and this is really, to me, inspired by the book, “What Color is Your Parachute?”

It’s a pretty well-known and renowned career development book that stays current year-to-year, and they divide the concept of professional skills into these three categories, one of which is transferable skills.

The first one that they talk about is hard skills, and hard skills are knowledge. They’re usually nouns. We’re talking about things like mathematics, physics, data analysis, graphic design, et cetera. I think most people, when they think about skills, hard skills tend to be the first thing that they think about, and a lot of times when I work with college students or recent grads, early career folks, they are also thinking about this as the top of mind because it’s related to their majors and their minors. It’s what they went to school for.

But that’s not everything. There’s also soft skills. We hear a lot about that. I actually prefer Simon Sineck’s take on that. He calls them “human skills” because, you know, hard and soft are opposites, and we want to get away from that thinking.

Human skills are like traits; they’re self-management, it’s how you show up in the workplace, and how you behave. Are you adaptable? Are you enthusiastic? Are you empathetic? Et cetera.

What’s missing? We have what we know, and then we have how we behave, how we show up in the workplace. It’s really, transferable skills are what you do, what you can do on projects, or what tasks you have. Are you researching? Are you coaching? Are you teaching? Are you problem-solving? Are you thinking of new innovations, new ideas?

The point of them is that they are transferable, exactly that, to different industries, different organizations. The odds are that if you did some form of data analysis or coaching, or public speaking in one industry or one company or organization, you can do it for another.

That’s the concept of transferable, and it really centers on how we work, how we spend our days, and how we complete the tasks, and what we love doing, as opposed to what we know or how we act and work with others.

Mac Prichard:

Do you find, Zach, that the people that you work with understand these three sets of skills, and the difference among them, and the value that they can offer in a job search and in your career?

Zach Moore:

Yeah, I think when it’s described in that way, especially with examples, it’s pretty quick to grasp, but what I think is interesting is the transferable skills, they sound obvious, but they’re almost so obvious that they’re not obvious. In the way you take for granted breathing, walking, and chewing gum at the same time while you’re listening to a podcast, I think we forget about how we spend our day.

I think when I talk to recent grads or college students, sometimes, when they think about an occupation that they want to pursue or a job that they want to have, they like the idea of it but sometimes lack the knowledge of, what are the transferable skills? What are the work activities? What’s a day in the life of that person?

You think about video game development; that’s a recent one that folks love. Students love video games, and they’re like, “I want to design video games.” Well, that’s actually quite a lot of software development, coding, and mathematics. It’s probably important that the student is interested in those three and, furthermore, has skill in those areas before they even think about the dream of doing that one day.

Really unpacking, what is it like to be on the job? And I think when we talk about that, it’s almost like a lightbulb goes off, and they go, “Oh wow. That’s a great point, and I should probably look more into that.”

Mac Prichard:

We’re going to talk about how to look into it and how to identify and talk about your skills.

Before we get there, what do employers care most about when you’re talking about your transferable skills? What are they listening for?

Zach Moore:

I love this question because I think what we’re seeing in a lot of recent developments and a lot of this research comes out of big consortiums like the National Association of Colleges and Employers, NACE. We’ve got the Strata Education Network, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

We’re hearing over and over again from employers that they value the main tenets of a liberal arts education, and that’s not to throw any shade, if you will, at the more hard-skill-heavy careers like in STEM. Hard skills are really important.

We do need to know how to use certain platforms and do certain things, but I think it’s more the intangibles, it’s more the transferable skills, it’s the critical thinking, it’s the problem-solving, it’s thinking outside the box. Can you analyze patterns, can you listen intently, can you seek to understand as opposed to coming in with these, “It’s all about me and understand that I’ve got it all together.”

It’s more, “No, what does the market need, what does the client need?”

It depends on the industry, but I think that’s…a lot of times you’ll hear this thing that employers say, “You’ve got the IT. You’ve got what we’re looking for. We can teach you the stuff that you don’t know. Okay, so you used Tablo, and you’ve used SPSS and some of these different softwares, but we use Sales Force. I’m not worried about the fact that you haven’t used it yet. You can learn it. It’s more your critical thinking, and problem-solving, and analysis skills; that’s what you’re bringing, that’s what we value. We can teach you the rest.”

Mac Prichard:

How do you coach recent graduates and college students about how to talk about that? Because often people may think, “I’ll just list the skills that I have and that should be enough.”

But to your point about employers caring about things like critical thinking, what’s a good way for someone who wants to emphasize those transferable skills, to highlight them both in their application materials and in their conversations with hiring managers in interviews? What have you seen work?

Zach Moore:

Tell us a story. Tell us a story and be specific.

When have you used these skills? It’s that show, don’t tell. Obviously, I just said, “Tell us a story,” but you understand the metaphor. It’s, give me an example of when you’ve thought critically or had some example of problem-solving with a lot of nuanced variables, and you’ve really attacked a problem in a unique way.

Tell me that, and don’t sweat the fact that it may be in a different industry. I especially think that a lot of college students, if they don’t have robust previous work experience, maybe they were just bagging groceries or maybe they were a barista for Starbucks or something, they might sell themselves short, and I think that’s a shame. I think it’s important to have confidence in your own self-efficacy and what you bring to the table, and don’t be afraid of telling a story that may seem like it’s in an industry that’s irrelevant, but it actually speaks to the skills that you have.

I think about – I’m actually going to tell a personal story of my wife, who was working in big tech in Silicon Valley. She was working for Google and was doing a bunch of HR stuff and did a ton of program administration, a lot of admin work, a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of emails, and she really wanted to do a transition into sustainable energy and clean energy and she just couldn’t. She didn’t have the confidence to walk into an interview or tell a story on a cover letter because she just felt like she was stuck in this tech world.

What ended up getting her through to break through and get an interview and then win that interview to break into that space here in Portland was telling stories from Google with confidence and saying, “You know, look, I understand that you have a lot of clients, you have a lot of distributors of solar and wind, et cetera, and that’s a lot of spreadsheets, that’s a lot of data. Here’s examples of when I’ve worked through tons of spreadsheets and tons of data. I have lots of really great Excel skills, and I handled wide varieties of diverse workloads, and I killed it. I did a great job in these areas, and I can do that for you.”

College students, especially, they think a lot about when they’re applying for internships or scholarships, et cetera, they’re thinking, “What is this going to do for me?” But you really have to flip that when you’re a job seeker and say, “This is what I bring to you, and this is an example of when I’ve done it for someone else.” And don’t sweat it if it’s in a different industry.

You can prove that it’s transferable by telling that story with confidence and being specific. Give me examples. What did you do? Not what your team did. Tell me what you specifically did.

Mac Prichard:

Well, this is terrific, Zach.

We’re going to take a break.

When we come back, Zach Moore will continue to share his advice on how to identify and talk about your transferable skills.

In the second segment, Zach, I really want to dig into how you do that, identify those skills and talk more about them.

Stay with us.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Zach Moore.

He’s the career pathways manager at College Possible.

It’s a nonprofit that coaches students from low-income communities to and through college.

Zach joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Now, Zach, before the break, we were talking about transferable skills and why they matter, how to distinguish transferable skills from hard and soft skills, and we also talked about how to discuss your transferable skills with employers, and what hiring managers are listening for when you do that.

Let’s talk now about how to identify your transferable skills and dig into that. You’ve got a number of tips, I know, that you share with the students and recent grads that you work with.

One of them is to reflect on your professional experiences. Tell us more about this, Zach. What do you have in mind, and how will this help you identify your transferable skills?

Zach Moore:

Yeah, so I think the first step is really to reflect on some work-related success stories, ones where you felt like you were really thriving and you were using your strengths, you were at your best, but also that you were enjoying it, you were feeling productive, you felt accomplished, and I think that you want to think of more than one. In fact, I think the best is to shoot for 5-7.

The reason is that when you reflect on these stories, you want to take some notes, you want to write down some examples, tell the story to yourself, remind yourself, and then you use the book we talked about, “What Color Is Your Parachute,” they have got a transferable skills grid, we have adapted this here at College Possible, so you just go through and you look at examples of transferable skills and you check the box of all of the ones that you were using in this particular story.

Then, when you do that 5-7 times with different stories, you’ll start to notice patterns. You’ll start to see, “Oh, wow, it’s really when I’m speaking to clients or when I’m speaking to stakeholders, when I’m persuading people, when I’m motivating people, these transferable skills with people. I’m seeing a lot of this across all of my examples.”

That will hopefully affirm you. You’ll feel good; you’ll feel confident; you’ll say, “Oh my gosh, yes, this does feel like me.” And that really will boost your confidence, and it will make you feel better and feel like, “I can go talk to an employer and say what I do best, and I have tangible examples of doing that at my best.”

Mac Prichard:

Paint a picture, Zach, of this grid. What does it look like for someone who’s listening and might not get a chance to look at the book or go online? What should you visualize in your mind when you think about this grid?

Zach Moore:

I love that. I would divide it into three sections.

You’ve got skills with people, and then you’ve got skills with data and ideas, and then you’ve got skills with things. If it helps to just think in those three categories, you can do a Google search of transferable skills, try and find some word banks, they’re out there and try and divide them into those three categories.

Try and imagine the first category, skills with people, just a list, supervise, manage, follow through, motivate, consult, advise, assess, instruct, listen, counsel, those sorts of things. Those sorts of things that you do with people and then check those boxes.

Then, below, you have skills with data and ideas. This is now create, innovate, design, visualize, think critically, synthesize, perceive patterns, analyze, solve problems, that’s data and ideas.

Then the last one is skills with things, so we can’t leave out those more hands-on work, so are you repairing something? Are you constructing something? Are you shaping it? Are you sculpting it? Is it an art thing that you are doing? Are you operating something? Are you driving something? Are you using some form of technology that is with your hands? Something with “things,” that’s sort of this last category.

You just go through it for each story. Check the box, circle the ones, write down the same skills that you find yourself using.

Mac Prichard:

You construct that list, you know your transferable skills, and you’ve organized them by these categories. Now you’re ready to tell that story that you encourage people to do and to have 5-7 of those stories.

What’s the structure of that story look like when you’re getting ready to talk about your transferable skills, both in your application materials and in your interviews?

Zach Moore:

Well, first off, you want to make sure that there are examples of things that whatever job you’re looking for, whatever job you’re applying for, whatever employer, that you know specifically what they want. What’s a task they need done?

You know, I’ve heard it said that every job description is a cry for help. Now, they’re sold as, like, marketing material because they want to sell it to the best talent out there, so they’re writing it a bit strategically, but the reality is that they’re hiring because they need help, and they specifically put in the job description what they need.

When you see a job description, and you see examples of tasks that relate to your personal transferable skills, that’s exciting. You can go, “I can tell a story that speaks to the skill that I have that is exactly what they need because they put that in their job description.”

You want to use the language they use, and they’ll ask you questions in the interview if that’s the example. Otherwise, in the cover letter, you get to be creative in how you write that. Write to exactly what they want, telling stories about your transferable skills and your previous experiences.

Mac Prichard:

Often, when people are making a career change, they do this work, they understand what their transferable skills are, and they figure out by looking at job descriptions what matters to an employer, but they have their heart set on working in a particular industry or for one company. What do you think of that approach when you’re trying to make a career change?

Zach Moore:

It’s a great question because I like to think of it as imagine two scenarios: it’s the dream role, but in an industry that you’re not super passionate about or at a company that you don’t care a lot about or a mission that you’re not excited about, but it’s the dream role. It’s all of the tasks that you love and it needs the skills that you have.

Versus the industry, company, and mission that you’re most passionate about, but it’s a job that may not be the best fit for your skills or is as exciting to you on the job. There’s a couple of different ways of thinking about this.

Some folks will say, “Hey, get into that industry and just take whatever you can get and make yourself invaluable and then leverage that to have them move you into a role that’s a better fit for you.”

I sort of subscribe, it’s ironic to your question, but I subscribe to build those transferable skills, hone your strengths, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in a different industry or something for the moment.

I know that’s a tough sacrifice, but sometimes life is about sacrifices but hopefully, then, when whatever industry, company, or mission is hiring for what you do best, you kind of jump on that, and Mac, this is the Find Your Dream Job podcast. That’s the dream job.

It really depends on priorities and sacrifices. Can you endure a day-to-day job that might not be what you love the most, but it’s for the mission that you care the most about, and how long can you do that before you can hopefully get moved into a better role that fits you or suits you?

I don’t know if that specifically answered your question, but it depends on the context. But I would never shy away from really selling yourself for that company or industry that you want to get into for the role that fits you, even though, maybe, perhaps your experience isn’t in that exact industry. You just have to be able to tell that story to them so that it’s relatable.

They say, “Oh, okay. You did that for them. That means you can do it for us.”

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Zach. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Zach Moore:

Well, College Possible, speaking of dream jobs, it’s a great fit for me right now. Speaking of missions, I really care about being able to offer low-income students this type of coaching, and we’re really trying to build partnerships with universities so that we can help coach our students into college but then start to build partnerships with employers, so that these students, who are predominately students of color from under-represented communities, they can really break out into the workforce because the workforce is better for having them.

I’m excited about it.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific.

I know that listeners can learn more about you and your work at College Possible by visiting the College Possible website. That URL is

You also invite listeners to connect with you on LinkedIn, and as always, when people reach out to you there, I hope they’ll mention that they heard you on Find Your Dream Job.

Now, given all of the great advice you’ve shared today, Zach, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to identify and talk about your transferable skills?

Zach Moore:

Don’t forget that your day-to-day work life matters, and that’s really where the rubber meets the road. It’s how you’re shining every day, completing the tasks and responsibilities that are in your portfolio and think about that, being mindful about that. Especially when you’re job searching, make sure that whatever job you’re going for and hopefully being hired into is one that suits your skills and strengths, and you deserve that, so prioritize that.

Mac Prichard:

Next week, our guest will be Jasmine Tolbert.

She’s the vice president of people and culture for YWCA Clark County.

Her organization is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.

Companies are asking candidates for jobs of all kinds at all levels about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Hiring managers do this to better understand a candidate’s perspective on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Join us next Wednesday when Jasmine Tolbert and I talk about how to answer job interview questions about racial equity.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

Susan Thornton-Hough schedules our guests and writes our newsletter. Lisa Kislingbury Anderson manages our social media.

Our sound engineer and editor is Matt Fiorillo. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.