Understanding transferable skills: what are they?

People facing job changes and career transitions may be considering applying for jobs for which they don’t fully meet the requirements. They may appear to lack specific skills, or think that their experience is not relevant to the role. This is why understanding transferable skills is important: it increases the range of jobs you can apply for.

Throughout life a person develops many skills from a range of contexts, including family, the community, volunteering, sport, study, training and work. Some of these skills are job-specific and may have limited application elsewhere. Others have wider application. For example, a bookkeeper may use spreadsheets to record information. Another job may not use the same tool or require entering the same information. However, the ability to learn and use different tools, to enter information accurately, with an eye for detail, are applicable to many jobs.

What are transferable skills?

A search on this question gives a variety of answers, with some people offering alternative names, such as ‘portable’ or ‘core’ skills.

Definitions include:

  • Qualities that can be transferred from one job to another.
  • Any skills that are useful to employers across various jobs and industries.
  • A core set of skills and abilities that go beyond a particular job or organisation – you can use them in almost any role.
  • The skills that you use in every job, no matter the title or the field.
  • Skills developed in one context that can be applied or transferred to another context.
  • Abilities that can easily be applied to any role or business, regardless of industry.
  • All the skills that you take with you from one job to another.

There are subtle differences in these definitions. There are some ‘qualities’ that are transferable such as adaptability and dependability. Confining transferable skills to ‘skills used in every job’ or that can be ‘applied to any job’ is limiting, as there may be skills used in a few jobs that are still transferable, like teaching and training.

The most useful way to think of transferable skills is that they are skills developed in one context that can be applied to another context. This definition doesn’t limit the scope of what is transferable.

Care is needed when exploring transferable skills to note the country of origin. For Australian jobs it’s best to source Australian information.

Some sources of information about transferable skills, classify skills as technical, non-technical, soft and hard. These distinctions are problematic and are unhelpful in identifying skills. Certainly, there are technical skills that involve using specific knowledge and skills to use tools to perform tasks, such as in industries like construction, mining, information technology and agriculture. But a person performing a customer service role uses techniques to perform their role well, (such as engaging unhappy customers), may enter data into systems, may understand security issues and requirements, and may be a safety warden.

People who perform roles that rely heavily on technical skills also need to be skilled team players, be able to explain problems to people who lack similar background knowledge, can solve complex problems, teach others to build their skills, lead teams to complete projects, and adapt to changes.

So, trying to distinguish types of skills can waste much time and deliver marginal value.

What is of value is to understand what employers seek and expect, how to identify your relevant transferable knowledge, skills and experience, and how to express these in applications, resumes and at interview. This article focuses on understanding what employers seek and expect.

What Australian employers seek

Searching what Australian employers look for when recruiting is likely to refer you to employability skills, also referred to as enterprise skills, generic competencies and workplace and work readiness skills. What adds to the confusion is that in Australia there are several skill frameworks that are called different things depending on the context, such as in VET or higher education.

There are three main employability-related frameworks to understand and inform transferable skills.

Employability Skills Framework

Lists of employability skills tend to provide only broad headings, namely:

  • communication
  • teamwork
  • problem solving
  • initiative and enterprise
  • planning and organising
  • self-management
  • learning
  • technology.

This is only a starting point and is not the most helpful information as the skills are too broad. Some background to the source of the Employability Skills Framework provides much more useful information for understanding transferable skills.

In 2002 the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), in consultation with other peak employer bodies, produced the Employability Skills for the Future report.

This report builds on the Mayer Key Competencies which were developed in 1992 and attempted to describe generic competencies for effective participation in work. Employability skills are defined as ‘skills required not only to gain employment, but also to progress within an enterprise so as to achieve one’s potential and contribute successfully to enterprise strategic directions’. The two parts of this definition are important, as employability skills are relevant not only to new entrants to the workforce but those returning to work and those moving between different labour markets.

Note also that employability skills help with progressing within an organisation and help it to succeed. When expressing skills relevant to a job, explain how they will contribute to business success.

The Employability Skills Framework comprises personal attributes and skills, with the attributes relating to an individual rather than an occupation. Personal attributes refer to “a set of non skill-based behaviours and attitudes that employers felt were as important as the employability skills and other technical or job-specific skills”. The framework incorporates the following personal attributes that contribute to overall employability:

  • loyalty
  • commitment
  • honesty and integrity
  • enthusiasm
  • reliability
  • personal presentation
  • commonsense
  • positive self-esteem
  • sense of humour
  • balanced attitude to work and home life
  • ability to deal with pressure
  • motivation
  • adaptability.

It is debatable whether these attributes are non-skilled behaviours. For example, honesty and integrity are based on having a set of values that inform choices and understanding of the role they play in building trust in relationships. This requires displaying certain behaviours, such as being consistent, keeping commitments, and leading by example, all of which can involve building interpersonal skills.

‘Skills’ in the Employability Skills Framework describe the learned capacity of the individual. ‘Skills’ has been used instead of competencies, to avoid definitional confusion.

The key skills identified in conjunction with the personal attributes to make up the Employability Skills Framework are:

  • communication skills that contribute to productive and harmonious relations between
  • employees and customers;
  • teamwork skills that contribute to productive working relationships and outcomes;
  • problem-solving skills that contribute to productive outcomes;
  • initiative and enterprise skills that contribute to innovative outcomes;
  • planning and organising skills that contribute to long-term and short-term strategic planning;
  • self-management skills that contribute to employee satisfaction and growth;
  • learning skills that contribute to ongoing improvement and expansion in employee and
  • company operations and outcomes; and
  • technology skills that contribute to effective execution of tasks.

Note that these skills are expressed in terms of their contribution to an organisation.

For each of the above skills, the report identifies several elements. The elements are the facets of the skills that employers identified as important, noting that the mix and priority of these facets would vary from job to job, that the list is not exhaustive, is indicative of employers’ expectations, and that the level of sophistication in the application of the element will depend on the job level and requirements.

For example, the skill ‘self-management that contributes to employee satisfaction and growth’, offers five elements that indicate what is important to employers:

  • Having a personal vision and goals
  • Evaluating and monitoring own performance
  • Having knowledge and confidence in own ideas and vision
  • Articulating own ideas and vision
  • Taking responsibility.

When considering your transferable skills in relation to self-management, this is the information to consider, namely that you can demonstrate these elements and that they contribute to employee satisfaction and growth.

The report identifies critical aspects underpinning the framework, some of which are:

  • The skills identified as critical to employability are broadly consistent across industry
  • sectors and are all important though the elements would depend on the industry and workplace context.
  • The priority of these employability skills (and their respective elements) vary from
  • enterprise to enterprise, subject to the context of the job level and requirements.
  • The employability skills identified are as relevant as job-specific or technical skills.
  • The employability skills identified are relevant to entry-level and established employees.
  • What is also recognised by employers is that the elements and level of complexity of the skill will vary with both the job type and classification.
  • There is a strong recognition of the role of lifelong learning in skill development and response to change.
  • It is recognised that customer service of itself is not an isolated skill but rather the outcome of the integration of a range of different skills of an individual e.g. communication and problem solving.

What is important to note from this information for understanding transferable skills is:

It is essential to understand the context of any job being applied for, including the industry, what skills, knowledge, experience and qualifications an employer identifies, what level of skill complexity and role seniority applies, in order to identify relevant transferable skills.

  • Many jobs involve integrating a range of different job-specific and employability skills.
  • Most jobs, regardless of how ‘technical’ they may seem, require employability skills.
  • Lifelong learning is essential.
  • Using skills to deliver outcomes is important.
  • Skills mature over time and develop in sophistication and complexity.
Core Skills for Work Framework (CSfW)

The Employability Skills Framework differs from, but is related to, the Core Skills for Work Framework (CSfW), established in 2013, which describes “a set of non-technical skills, knowledge and understandings that underpin successful participation in work. Participation in work could be as an employee, as someone who is self-employed, or as a volunteer.”

These core skills work in combination with technical or discipline-specific skills and core language, literacy and numeracy skills. (See the Australian Core Skills Framework below.)

These skills are also referred to as generic or employability skills since they contribute to work performance in combination with discipline-specific skills.

The CSfW takes the skills and behaviours that have been identified by Australian employers as important for successful participation in work and identifies the underpinning skills and knowledge involved. The ten Skill Areas are a combination of:

  • Knowledge — what someone knows about in a theoretical or abstract sense.
  • Understanding — how they link it to their personal experience, and
  • Skills — how they put their knowledge and understanding into practice in work settings.

The CSfW is not a set of standards, nor an assessment tool. It is a framework for conceptualising and articulating skills, knowledge and understandings that underpin work performance over time, and for guiding further development. (P. 4)

This framework describes performance in ten Skill Areas grouped under three Skill Clusters.

Cluster 1 – Navigate the world of work

  • a. Manage career and work life
  • b. Work with roles, rights and protocols

Cluster 2 – Interact with others

  • a. Communicate for work
  • b. Connect and work with others
  • c. Recognise and utilise diverse perspectives

Cluster 3 – Get the work done

  • a. Plan and organise
  • b. Make decisions
  • c. Identify and solve problems
  • d. Create and innovate
  • e. Work in a digital world

This framework recognises that:

  • the particular skills and stages of performance required by individuals will vary according to the context in which they are operating.
  • there is no expectation that individuals will necessarily need all of these skills, or will need to develop them to the expert stage of performance.
  • an individual is likely to be operating at different stages of performance across different Skill Areas.
  • an individual’s ability to demonstrate and develop these skills will be influenced by the context in which they are operating.

The CSfW utilises a developmental approach, identifying five stages:

  • A novice performer
  • An advanced beginner
  • A capable performer
  • A proficient performer
  • An expert performer.

The framework points out that “as an individual progresses from the “novice” stage through to later stages of development, their reliance upon explicit ‘rules’ governing action (e.g. instructions, processes, procedures, guidelines, models,) and systematic approaches to work tasks decreases, and their understanding of implicit ‘rules’ (e.g. conventions, expectations), use of judgement and more flexible, intuitive approaches increases”. This is an important point for job applicants. As familiarity with work increases, and as complexity of work increases, people do their work without much conscious effort and must bring to conscious awareness much of what they do when applying for another job.

The framework is also context-dependent. This means that “the stage of performance at which an individual will operate is highly dependent on their understanding of the situation in which they are applying their skills. For example, someone who is ‘proficient’ at solving problems in one organisation will require some time to build relationships and learn the protocols of a new organisation before they have the situational knowledge and understanding they require to demonstrate proficient performance in the new situation. In the interim, they may need to revert to the formal problem solving processes of a ‘capable’ performer.”

In addition to providing useful definitions of skill-related terms, this framework offers material on distinguishing a novice from a capable performer across each of the skills. For example, under the Skill Area ‘Connect and Work with Others’, terms like cooperate, collaborate, empathy and team are explained. Rapport is described as a relationship of mutual understanding and trust in which those involved feel comfortable and accepted. The Focus Area ‘Build rapport’ describes a novice in ‘connecting and working with others’, as someone who “with encouragement, attempts to establish a connection with one or two people in immediate work context” while a capable performer is a person who “uses a range of strategies to establish a sense of connection with others” and gives examples of what these behaviours might be.

To further understand and identify transferable skills that employers want, it is worth studying this framework for insights into what skills mean, how they might apply in context, and what level of proficiency you have.

Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF)

Another set of skills is the core language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills, known as the Australian Core Skills Framework, established in 2012. The Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF) is a tool which assists both specialist and non-specialist English language, literacy and numeracy practitioners describe an individual’s performance in the five core skills. The five core skills are:

  • Learning
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Oral communication
  • Numeracy.

These skills are essential for individuals to participate effectively in our society. They are inextricably interwoven into all parts of our lives, being directly or indirectly linked to the physical, social and economic wellbeing of individuals, workplace productivity and safety, community interaction and capacity, and ultimately to Australia’s economic and community wellbeing.

While the core skills are listed as discrete, they are interrelated. Context is important, influencing what skills are used and how. The ACSF describes each of the five core skills across five levels of performance, four factors that may influence a person’s performance, such as text and task complexity, and three domains or broad contexts within which each core skill may be used:

  • personal and community
  • workplace and employment
  • education and training.

The framework distinguishes types of texts which are helpful for specifying the material applicants work with. The text types include:

  • Procedural, such as operational procedures
  • Persuasive, such as a report with suggestions for action
  • Informative, such as a newsletter
  • Creative, such as advertising copy
  • Technical, such as an instruction manual
  • Regulatory, such as course completion requirements
  • Descriptive, such as a recount of a trip overseas.

The ACSF recognises that an individual may be operating across different levels within a core skill, demonstrating some Performance Features across two or more levels, or performing more strongly in one Domain of Communication than in another.

The framework is useful for identifying different aspects of the core skills. For example, the document explains that:

“Oral Communication involves both transactional and interpersonal exchanges. Transactional exchanges are primarily practical in purpose, designed to achieve a specific outcome such as providing or obtaining information, goods and services. Exchanges tend to be more formulaic and structured and may often involve situations where speakers have no prior knowledge of each other.

Interpersonal exchanges involve an engagement of the speakers with each other for the purposes of establishing, building and maintaining a relationship, problem solving, exploring issues, dealing with conflict and sharing/expressing emotions. The speakers may not have had previous contact and the relationship may or may not be ongoing.

Exchanges may be formal or informal and will be influenced by factors such as the context of the exchange, cultural understandings, power relations, social distance and emotional/attitudinal factors. They will also be influenced by the medium of the exchange; that is, not all oral events occur face to face.”

The levels of performance are useful for identifying skill abilities and strengths. Level 1, the lowest level, describes performance in oral communication as:

  • Gives or elicits basic information in a short, simple spoken context.
  • Listens for basic information in short, simple oral texts.

Level 5, the highest levels, describes performance as:

  • Establishes and maintains complex and effective spoken communication in a broad range of contexts.
  • Displays depth of understanding of complex oral texts which include multiple and unstated meanings.
Using these frameworks to understand transferable skills

Lessons from this review of employability skills frameworks are:

  • These skills are as relevant to jobs as job-specific skills.
  • Both skills and attributes are relevant and important.
  • Skills vary in the level of sophistication required for a job.
  • Lifelong learning is essential.
  • Skills are interrelated.
  • Contextual information is important to understanding the relevance and application of skills.
  • Skills develop over time.

When thinking about your transferable skills you could use this information to help:

  • Analyse what attributes and skills you use in your various roles.
  • Analyse the stage of development and level of performance of these skills.
  • Identify examples of experience that are relevant to a job.
  • Analyse how skills are interrelated.
  • Explain the value of your skills to an employer.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.