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What are ”Transferable Skills”?

The recruitment industry is chock full of jargon. On your job seeking journey you’ve probably come across a variety of popular phrases like ‘tailored CV’, ‘job criteria’, and ’employee satisfaction’. However, those terms mean pretty much what they say (even though they sound a bit high-brow). With regards to the phrase ‘transferable skills’, however, can we say the same thing? What are transferable skills? And now that we’re on the subject, what on earth are ‘soft skills’? Why do these things matter? How do they impact your career prospects? Let’s find out: 

Let’s Start with Transferable Skills:

You might learn something new here, because I certainly did. I never really had to bother finding out the meaning of the term for my own career as a freelance writer. I actually thought transferable skills were simply skills you learned that could actually be applied to something, as opposed to skills that are highly specialised. For example, origami is great, but it won’t help you in a standard job. Similarly, you might be an expert at guitar, but this won’t really ‘transfer’ to your office job.

 So, that’s what I thought transferable skills were: skills that you could use in a general way. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but when the phrase is used it’s not meant as a comparison to specialised skills. I thought the core of the meaning resided in the difference between something that can be transferred and something that cannot.

 More accurately, transferable skills are those things that we naturally pick up through life and work experience. However, we might have some and not others: we don’t all get a measured amount of every transferable skill. 

Desirable Transferable Skills:

If you’re thinking about your career prospects and want to make yourself more of an all-rounder, you might want to consider improving your transferable skills. Here are two that are highly sought after in many industries: 

Technical Skills

You don’t have to be Bill Gates in order to possess a decent amount of technical skill. It’s a broad term, to begin with. No doubt you’ve picked up some tips and tricks for using a computer or a till if you’ve worked in the public service industry. You might not understand software code, but you can say you have technical skills if you are competent using technology. Every new job will likely require a familiarity with different apps or software packages, but knowing the basics about programmes that pertain to your industry will really boost your job prospects. For example, if you’re a graphic designer, you’re more likely to be adept at graphics software than anything else.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is essentially the ability to consider an idea or concept from multiple points of view. At its most basic level, it is examining something from many different angles in order to arrive at a resolution. You might plan something out, you might consider the consequences of carrying out a particular plan of action, or you might detail the steps required to arrive at a resolution: these are all components of critical thinking. This is a highly desired skill in the working world at large, because most businesses are, at their most basic level, an organisation that becomes more efficient and profitable when they find clever solutions to whatever problems may be hindering their success.

Other desirable transferable skills include communication skills (the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas in a clear and consise way), multitasking (high organisational skills combined with speed, quality of work, and efficiency), and creativity (solving problems in ways that other people might not consider, and possessing the initiative to imagine completely new ideas for improvement of some kind). 

So, now that we’re clear on what transferable skills are, what on earth are soft skills? 

Soft Skills

Transferable skills and soft skills are very similar, so it’s easy to get them confused. In fact, many people do. Soft skills are basically transferable skills that are more general. When discussed above, the transferable skills have been proven, or are tangible, to some degree. The technical ability is the easiest to define as a transferable skill, especially if you can specify what technology you specialise. Critical thinking is a soft skill in general. It becomes a transferable skill when you can essentially specify your expertise. Myself, for example? I can say I have strong critical thinking skills because I am a PhD graduate. You have to come up with your own idea when putting forward your pitch for a thesis. It has to be something completely original. You have to basically produce academic insights that no one else has before. Thus, this is a proven capability, and is a transferable skill. If you think you’re a strong critical thinker but have no tangible evidence, it’s a soft skill. The same applies to the other desirable transferable skills alluded to above. 

And Yes, There are Hard Skills Too

Luckily, this one is easy. Hard skills are simply specialised skills and qualifications. Carpentry, your college degree, and your ability to speak a foreign language are all hard skills. It’s not surprising that my initial perception of all of these skills was a bit warped, considering the overlap because hard, soft, transferable, and specialised skills. Hard skills are basically a person’s specialty that they have often refined in relation to their career. Hence, origami might not be particularly useful, but speaking Japanese tends to come in very handy if you are a translator! 


So, here are the different types of skills people have, and how they can impact your career: 

Hard Skills: These are probably the most sought after, and tailored to fit a particular job. Someone trains in carpentry in order to become a carpenter. Someone else gets a degree in history as a starting point for becoming a history teacher. Someone else goes to music school and reaches the highest level in an instrument in order to one day achieve their dream of playing in an orchestra. 

Soft Skills: These are skills most of us have that are yet to be fully developed. Most of us can work as a team, communicate well, and think on a critical level. The more experience we gain in these areas, the more evidence we can produce to future employers. Employers always want to see evidence of something you claim to be good at, so they will always prefer to see that your skill has progressed from soft to transferable. 

Transferable Skills: These are basically soft skills that have become highly developed, with tangible evidence. You might be creative, but how have you demonstrated this in your life and career thus far? 

Specialised Skills: This one is kind of from my own head, and not so much the recruitment industry. These are skills that are essentially hard skills, except they are developed for reasons that often fall outside of your career path. Hobbies, for example, can develop into specialised skills if you dedicate yourself to them enough. You might just learn these skills for fun, or for personal development. 

So, now that you’re a bonafide expert on the different types of skills that are desirable in the workplace and play a central role in recruitment policies, it’s time to sit down and consider your own skills: which category do they fall into, and how will this help you move forward in your career or job-seeking journey? Are there any you need to develop further before becoming a serious candidate for the job you really want? It’s time to be honest with yourself! Getting a job is not easy, and getting a dream job is a reality reserved for the truly dedicated.

by Gillian Rixey
(Gillian is a PhD qualified freelance writer and scholar born in Ireland but currently residing in the United States.)