The Answer to: Do You Really Have Transferable Skills or Are You Just Unqualified?

My colleagues and I recently hosted a mixer at our office as a way to meet prospective employees to join our recruiting team.

We advertised the event across multiple social media channels as well as to our personal networks, so the attendees represented a broad spectrum of experiences—and many of them didn’t have any sort of background in recruiting.

Throughout the evening, each interested prospect made a case for why their experience could translate to a recruiter role, some more successfully than others.

For example, we’d hear stuff like, “I was a producer in a newsroom, therefore I can do anything.” Or “I like helping people, therefore I’ll be a great recruiter.” These arguments tended to fall flat and didn’t exactly sell us on hiring the person.

The key to changing careers successfully lies in one particular thing: your transferable skills. And recognizing whether or not you have them can help you figure out if landing the job is realistic and feasible—or if you’re completely unqualified for it and shouldn’t bother trying. Here’s what you need to know to figure it out.


What Is a Transferable Skill, Anyway?

Let’s start by defining what a transferable skill is (and what it isn’t). At its core, a transferable skill is adaptable. For example, skills like “time management” or “effective written communication” are transferable in that you could have acquired or developed them in multiple ways, and they can also be applied to numerous roles.

In contrast, a skill that isn’t transferable is more straightforwardly yes or no. If a job requires you to speak Mandarin, either you know how to speak it or you don’t. You can’t exactly pivot your knowledge of Spanish to suggest you could also speak Mandarin.

As a result, most transferable skills tend to be soft skills rather than hard skills that require specific training or expertise.


How Do I Sell Transferable Skills in My Job Search?

Making a successful argument about transferable skills—whether you’re trying to sell them on an application or in an interview—is about understanding the priorities and needs of your audience. In other words, the hiring manager or company.

Do your research to get a sense of what skill sets and qualities are desirable for the role or field you’re attempting to break into. These can easily be identified just by looking at the job description (or several job descriptions). What specific language is the employer using to describe their needs?

Then, it’s simply a matter of conveying and linking what you’ve done to what the employer needs you to do—by offering a concrete example of when you’ve put the desired skill into action in a context similar to the role you’re applying for.

For example, if you learn that the ability to juggle competing deadlines and manage shifting priorities and schedules is critical for a role as an executive assistant at a venture capital firm, you can then focus on bringing those parts of your experience to the forefront.

We worked with a candidate who was in this exact position. She was a program coordinator for a higher education institution and managed the academic calendar, which included key deadlines regarding admissions, grant processing, and coursework development. In her transition to an executive assistant role, she applied the prioritization and time management skills that she developed as a program coordinator to suggest that she had the nuance and understanding to navigate similar challenges, albeit in a different environment.

As another example, rather than someone approaching me at our recruiting event and saying they like people and would therefore be a great recruiter, I would have appreciated an argument more along the lines of, “People are fantastic and endlessly entertaining and complex to me. I come from a sales background, and I’d much rather be applying my persuasion and sales skills to representing a person and helping them advance in their career than to pitching a product.”


Can Transferable Skills Ever Replace Requirements or Hard Skills?

In certain cases where you lack specific job requirements, it may be possible to make a compelling argument for how you can gain those on the job while also applying your current skills to provide immediate impact.

For instance, maybe you’re an HR manager whose experience has been managing HR issues for contingent workers and you want to make the leap to a role dealing with HQ employees that lists previous experience in an HQ position as a requirement. In this case, you could start by asking the hiring manager what their prevalent challenges are within the HR realm. Let’s say you discover that onboarding and retention are the most pressing concerns. You can then highlight these aspects of your background, particularly since onboarding and retention are typical issues when dealing with a contingent workforce.

In general, probing the hiring manager for what’s at the heart of their issue is going to reveal the best course for addressing it. Particularly where someone seems driven, motivated, and knowledgeable about the role, an employer may be willing to take a leap of faith where the requirements are not yet fully met and allow them to develop those skills on the job.

But again, keep in mind our earlier discussion of hard and soft skills. If the job posting says an MD is required with expertise in cardiovascular surgery, it’s unlikely that’s something you can make a compelling argument for if you don’t have that background.


So Can I Get a Job Purely Based on Transferable Skills?

I’m always in the camp of “if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” which means I’m more inclined to take the shot than not when it comes to applying for a job that’s slightly out of reach.

Nevertheless, some constructive prudence is necessary to avoid constantly getting rejected from jobs and becoming burnt out.

In order to apply your transferable skills effectively, you need to take stock (in an honest and realistic away) of whether your background makes sense for the role.

Ask yourself the following: Can you offer a concrete example to sell each of your transferable skills? And does your experience translate to at least 70% of what the job requires you to know how to do?

If so, give it a go! To keep with our example above about the HR manager, I’d say it’s a fair shot for that person to apply for the job supporting HQ employees.

But imagine that applicant had never been in HR at all—maybe their background is in product management—and had no familiarity with the issues, regulations, compliance, or best practices of an HR role. In a case like this, where the required skills simply don’t align to your background at all, it may be best to consider other options—such as taking an online course or getting certified, or pursuing more of an entry-level opportunity, internship, or hybrid role to begin to acquire the necessary expertise.

Before making your case to a prospective employer, you first need to have an honest conversation with yourself about whether the skills required for the job are more abstract and general or more concrete—requiring additional training, education, knowledge, or exposure. Know when you’re in striking distance and if it’s worth your effort (and the employer’s time) for you to apply so you set yourself up for success.


By Harkmore Lee
Harkmore Lee Associate Dean, Administration