Watch out for simplistic advice on transferable skills

Search for advice on transferable skills and you’ll be reading for hours. A closer scrutiny of this advice points to some caution being advisable.

Two groups are frequently mentioned as needing to identify transferable skills: entry-level people, such as young people and graduates, and people wanting to change work. Another, more specialised group, is military personnel transitioning to civilian roles. Whichever group you fall into, advice on transferable skills needs to be read with caution.

Here are seven points to consider.

Definitions: while definitions of transferable skills are similar, there is sufficient variation to be cautious. Most definitions refer to skills and abilities that are relevant across organisations and roles. They may be qualified as ‘core’ and can be sourced from education, internships, work experience, as well as parenting, hobbies and sport. Also known as ‘portable’ skills.

Lists: Lengthy lists may be provided to help you identify your transferable skills. Sadly, these lists are often described as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills.

Generalisations: Occasionally generalisations are made which could be a challenge to substantiate, such as “All skills and abilities can be transferable – depending on where they are being transferred to and from.”

Nuance: Much of the advice lacks nuance, that is, reference to the subtle complexities that relate to transferable skills. For example, only one website pointed out that transferable skills are interrelated, meaning that to relate to people involves verbal skills, listening skills, critical thinking, questioning skills, to name but a few.

Skill analysis: While lists of transferable skills are plentiful, they are of a general nature and lack a breakdown of what umbrella terms mean. For example, typical transferable skills listed are: communication, problem solving, interpersonal, project management, customer service. Communication is an umbrella term covering at least 100 specific skills. Project management can be applied to projects across a wide spectrum of size, cost and timeframe. These skills involve a wide range of details and any person may have a limited grasp of the scope of the skill. When considering customer service skills for example, some employers would prefer to take new staff without relevant experience so as to avoid having to undo poor skills learnt elsewhere.

Context: Writers admit that relating transferable skills to a new role is ‘hard’, but there is little advice on specifically how to do this. Absent is any analysis of context, meaning, how transferable skills might apply to variations in role, organisation and seniority. A person with rudimentary skills will have much to learn compared with someone who is highly competent, a specialist or expert.

Evidence: What is the evidence for skills being transferable from one context to another? While some research has been conducted with entry-level people, there is little that addresses variations in context.

Common advice is to research the job being applied for to work out what transferable skills a person has. Research, including talking to the contact person, is essential in order to tailor applications to a role.


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.