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How to Identify Your Transferrable Skills

Rachel Zupek, CareerBuilder.com Writer

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This "finding a career" thing is tricky business.

You go to college and major in one thing -- but find yourself in a job opposite from what you spent four years studying. Or, you land a job that's exactly in line with your college major -- but discover it's not what you had in mind. Or even still, you score a gig doing what you love and are content for many years -- until you get bored and want to make a switch.

So what happens to the experience you've gained from your current job and those before it? What about the hours, years and dollars spent studying this vocation in school? Do you really have to start at square one if you decide to drastically switch careers?

Not at all. Your experience turns into transferable skills; you just have to learn to recognize and sell them to employers.

Need help? Here's everything you need to know about identifying, applying and marketing your transferable skills.

What are transferable skills?

Transferable skills are talents you've acquired that can help an employer but that aren't immediately relevant to the job you seek, says Kevin Donlin, résumé writer and creator of TheSimpleJobSearch.com. Experiences like volunteer work, hobbies, sports, previous jobs, college coursework or even life happenings can lead you to find these skills.

Any skill is transferable; the trick is showing employers how it applies and is useful to them.

Identify transferable skills

With so much experience -- in work and otherwise -- the thought of sifting through it to recognize your applicable skills might sound scary. But, it's not as hard as you think.

Asking yourself questions like, "What are my three favorite accomplishments?" or "What activities make me the happiest?" will help you find your transferable skills easily, says Dawn Clare, a career and life coach.

"Evaluate your whole life, not just professional experiences," she says. "The point is to determine skill strengths. Use a framework of school, job, personal and organizational activities to determine your relevant accomplishments."

Start with the job you seek and identify the three most important abilities you'll need to do that job well, Donlin says. Then look over your experience and describe what you've done before in terms of what you want to do next. The best way to do this is through customized résumés and cover letters.

Apply transferable skills to your résumé

We've told you before and we'll tell you again: You have to create a résumé and cover letter specific to each job you apply for.

"Many times résumés fall short because one résumé applying for a variety of positions loses HR interest and job opportunities," says Jamie Yasko-Mangum, a self-image and training consultant and owner of Successful Style & Image Inc.

Organize your résumé by skill area or accomplishments rather than chronologically or functionally. Categorize all applicable skills, highlights and experiences and group them in categories such as "professional highlights," "skills summary" and "professional experience" and place them at the top of your résumé, Yasko-Mangum says.

"This will not pigeonhole you into a closed career option," she says, but will "showcase all your abilities for many career options."

For example, Andrew Best had six years of experience in customer service, but wanted to transition into sales. Donlin, the professional résumé writer, helped Best rework his résumé by including a profile at the top that showcased his transferable skills.

"We talked about the sales-related things Andrew did in customer service, like convincing customers to try new services, which we described in sales language like up-selling and cross-selling," Donlin says. "We talked about how he had ranked at or near the top for training and productivity, because sales are a competitive sport."  

Shel Horowitz, marketing consultant and founder of FrugalMarketing.com, remembers Carol, who had been out of the work force for 10 years as a homemaker. With an extensive volunteer history that Horowitz emphasized in her résumé, Carol landed a job as a director of a human service agency -- a position she held for 12 years.

"I stressed her administrative, fundraising and public contact skills," Horowitz says. He put a summary of her background in volunteering at the top of the résumé, followed by specific experiences to showcase her skills.

Sell your skills to an employer

Most marketable skills can be grouped into broad categories and broken down further based on the job you're applying for. For example, communication is a general skill area, which can be broken down into such skills as speaking effectively, writing concisely or negotiation.

"You must do all the thinking for the person reading your résumé," Donlin says. "Never expect anyone to figure out your relevant skills or how valuable they are."

To add credibility, Donlin suggests adding a quote to your résumé from past managers or clients to emphasize your transferable skills. For example, John, a client of Donlin's, made the transition from retail management to real-estate sales. His résumé included a quote from a real-estate agent praising John's character and sales skills, both of which are necessary in real estate.

"A third party endorsement of you is many times more credible and interesting than anything you could say about yourself," Donlin says.

Examples of applicable skills

Still need help selling your skills? Here are three examples of career transitions and how our experts suggest you could apply your transferable skills.

  • Server to entry-level marketing

    Transferable skills: Communication, client retention, sales and marketing, multitasking.

    How to sell it: "During peak periods, I had to prioritize and handle multiple orders, market menu items, answer questions quickly, communicate clearly, up sell additional selections and ensure repeat business. My daily tip totals provided highly efficient feedback, as they were based on personal productivity and customer satisfaction."


  • Nanny to human resources specialist

    Transferable skills: Human relations, teaching, development, time management, patience.

    How to sell it: "As a former caregiver to five children, I learned to identify with each child and learn his/her individual strengths, weaknesses and interests. I've also learned the importance of good time management, which would be an essential skill in the human resource department."


  • College student to software engineering

    Transferable skills: Computer science degree, team player, work ethic, trainable.

    How to sell it: "I have a strong background in computer science, with both a degree and extensive training in the field. An accomplished team player, I've worked with a database management group at XYZ University, created an online multimedia store and used CGI scripts written in C+++ to track customer satisfaction."

    Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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  • Last Updated: 06/11/2009 - 12:04 PM


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