Career Advice

The Myth Of Transferable Skills

I was an HR person for ages, so I know about dogma. Dogma is a kind of thick, sticky stuff that takes hold in an organization or institution and never lets go. It chokes the life out of an organism, like the kudzu that covers the trees in parts of the U.S.  One of the worst bits of dogma out in the advice-o-sphere is the myth of transferable skills. My take is that transferable skills are a crock. Here’s why.

We are taught in book after book, in seminars and podcasts and job search networking events that people get jobs by trumpeting their Transferable Skills. What are transferable skills? They are things like Communication Skills and Negotiation Skills. We’ve cultivated and deployed these skills in one arena, goes the logic, and by gum, we can do it somewhere else! There is one big problem with the Transferable Skills dogma. People are not actually ambulatory sets of disembodied, abstract skills. Describing ourselves as packages of skills is about the worst way imaginable to get a hiring manager excited about us.

Remember Neil Armstrong? He was the first person on the moon (as far as we know!). Neil Armstrong is a pilot, an astronaut, a scientist and a leader. That’s what the average person knows about him — undoubtedly he has hundreds of other talents. Now, how would we describe Neil Armstrong using the Transferable Skills model?

We might say:

Neil Armstrong is a savvy aeronautical professional with flying skills, landing skills, navigational skills, leadership skills and moon-rock-collecting skills.

How absurd! Neil Armstrong is the guy who first walked on the surface of the moon. That’s his story, for the next ten thousand years.

Neil’s moon-landing story is the point on his professional arrow. Neil Armstrong did something beyond cool, and in the words “first man on the moon” are embedded a slide show of powerful images, concepts and impressions about the skills Neil Armstrong must have had, to do what he did.

Stories are compelling, visual, and human. Boring, unverifiable lists of Transferable Skills are the booby prize for job-seekers looking to put their power across on the page.

There are five big problems with the skills dogma:

  • Talk is cheap. You say you have Communication Skills….but (no offense) who cares what you say? I’m the hiring manager, and I don’t even know you. Why would I trust your assessment of yourself?
  • Skills are framed so broadly that they could describe almost anything. When you say you have Negotiation Skills, what do you mean? Do you and I have the same definition for negotiation skills? Does the person who brokered an international peace accord claim the same Negotiation Skills as the person who got the company’s coffee vendor to throw a few extra creamers into the order? How would we know?
  • Skills are latent. When I say I have Writing Skills, I’m saying that I know how to write and could potentially write something at some point. Big deal! Do I know when to write, and what to write, to whom, when? Do I know what sorts of writing work best in different situations? We don’t want to tell a hiring manager that we possess potential power, and that it’s sitting on the shelf. We want to tell him or her that we know when to use every tool in our toolkit, and not only that — we want to let him know about times when we’ve pulled those tools down from the shelf and used them to great advantage.
  • When we list our Transferable Skills on a resume, we recite them without context. What could be incredible Communication Skills in one setting (getting a sales team jazzed up at the annual sales meeting, for example) might be terribly out of place in another setting (calmly negotiating a union contract). Stories, in contrast to skills listings, are loaded with context. We’ll tell the reader about that business dragon we slew (a cost overrun in Production, or a drop-off in attendance at our teleseminars) with plenty of detail about the situation we faced as we brought that dragon down. That’s when our job-search pitch has power!
  • Skills are trite. Everyone claims the same ten, done-to-death skills (Communication, Negotiation, Teamwork, Organizational, Writing, Leadership, Technical, Administrative, Customer Service and Process Improvement). We won’t make our mark sounding like every other skill-toting job seeker in the pack. We need powerful stories to convey our power, battle-tested and concrete, to the person who’s reading our resume.

My friend Ellen used to go on from time to time, and she told me “The worst thing is when guys use their personals ads to assert the very qualities they should be demonstrating. Why do I want to read a guy’s ad, where he says ‘I’m funny, cool and sexy?’ You want to be funny, cool and sexy, be those things right here, in the ad.” It’s the same way with resumes. Transferrable skills have had their day; it’s time to put a fork in them and move on. Trumpeting our fabulousness sans context, proof or relevance is a waste of time. Use your stories, instead, to make it clear how you’ve made a difference for your employers in the past.