What are transferable skills and how can you use them to get ahead at work?
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Transferable skills might sound like the blandest of business jargon but they’re much more than the latest buzzword – they are key to your future at work.
In a nutshell, your ability to be resilient, solve problems, be creative, adapt and take on leadership will count hugely in any job you have, regardless of the industry you’re in.
You can carry these wide-ranging skills from one role to another, between different employers and into different types of workplaces.
These qualities – which generally fall under the description of either communication, analysis or decision-making – are often the foundation of professional success and if you’re prepared to invest in them, they could pay dividends across your career. Today, three quarters of employers prioritise transferable skills equal to, or above, technical skills when recruiting new employees.
We explain why transferable skills are so vital and how they can prime you for success, whether you’re looking for a new job, approaching a promotion, or considering starting your own business.
Why are transferable skills so important?
The world of work has been caught up in a digital revolution - one some experts have described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – where the nature of the work we perform, the way we do it, and what is required from us is all changing at breakneck speed.
In practical terms, this technological innovation means many activities that once required careful manual support can now be automated. And as robots take over more work roles currently filled by humans, this pace of change will only accelerate. As many as one in five jobs in the UK are at risk of automation by 2030, a figure that is set to rise to one in three in northern industrial centres.
At the same time, cultural shifts in attitude are helping to reshape the workplace. With many individuals’ desire for a fulfilling career, greater flexibility and freedom of choice, more workers are job-hopping instead of staying with the same employer for life. More than ever, workers are changing industries, changing functions, taking sabbaticals and working remotely as standard. And the half-life of skills - the time for which a learned technical ability is valuable - is dropping, too, now at just five years. This means that technical skills learned ten years ago need to be constantly refreshed in order for workers to remain relevant. All these changes have pushed transferable skills to the forefront, as employers seek ways to hire those best able to cope with a fast-evolving workplace.
Hone your communication skills
Strong written and verbal communication skills are invaluable whatever job or role you have. They allow you to listen carefully to others, respond in ways that are appropriate (especially in terms of your tone and in context) and express your ideas powerfully, influencing others. They are also usually a marker of effective leadership.
As skillsets go, communication is one of the broadest but its key elements include:
- ‘Active’ listening - when you concentrate on what the speaker is saying and their body language, so that you fully understand their message and respond thoughtfully. To practise this, consider paraphrasing during a conversation. By summarising the main points shared by a speaker, you can show you fully understood and engaged with their words and intention.
- Greater influence via public speaking - being able to clearly and confidently articulate your point to an audience (small or large) to guide them to come to your point of view. Make eye-contact, speak slowly and surely, and don’t be afraid to pause to drink some water if you’re feeling nervous. Take time to choose your words – try to be measured and thoughtful in what you say, and avoid clichés and industry jargon which puts people off. Think about your pitch (one that’s comfortable for you), volume, eye contact (try to keep it for as long as possible) and body language (don’t slouch). Suffer with nerves? There are techniques galore you can use – try this TED Idea article or watch speech-language pathologist Jackie Gartner-Schmidt in this TED Talk video.
- Coaching to build confidence - helping to increase others’ effectiveness at their role through clear communication and support. For many, the true value of much workplace coaching is helping colleagues to learn by themselves, rather than to be constantly taught. Use methods such as challenging individuals to stretch themselves or positive reinforcement, and you can help a team to build their confidence.
These skills can be practically applied in the workplace in a number of different ways. For example, for a change of industry from teaching to marketing, it makes sense to highlight communication skills to illustrate suitability for the role.
The crossover is clear: teachers have to plan and engagingly present lessons to students of many different ages and abilities, while gently offering feedback and corrections where appropriate. Similarly, marketers plan and present campaign ideas and often work in large teams where feedback needs to be given diplomatically. They must also often use soft persuasive skills to influence others in order to push their ideas in front of customers.
Focus on better decision-making and how to think strategically
Regardless of whether you actually manage people or a team, it is likely that situations will arise where you are required to exercise good judgment, proactivity and creativity – often grouped under the term ‘strategy’.
It’ll also help to learn to negotiate more robustly and develop emotional intelligence. An ability to manage your own and others’ emotional experiences could significantly increase your chance of success in professional endeavours, as well as help you become more adaptable and emotionally resilient.
Other vital strategic elements of this type of transferable skill include:
- Exercising better judgment and decision-making. Often left feeling indecisive? Explore practical tips to improve decision-making, including how to remove as much emotion as possible from decisions; rationalise your decisions by weighing up pros and cons; and consider best and worst-case scenarios to help you understand the impact of any decision.
- Seeking out originality – try to think in an inventive and innovative way as possible to develop better ideas. For example, if you switch industries, you can apply your experience and knowledge from one to the other, test different business hypotheses, and bring a different understanding of risk. These should all help to infuse your work with a fresh, original outlook and invaluable new perspective.
- Constant idea generation - having good ideas consistently is tough. Keep yourself stimulated by reading widely and consider taking a class or course on creativity and entrepreneurship. Take your ideation one step further by learning how to determine which opportunities are worth an investment of your time and effort.
If you can demonstrate good decision-making skills, it can suggest you’re ready for a promotion - particularly in organisations where management of employees is a must.
Consider a software engineer faced with a choice: trying to fix existing software which keeps failing, or build a new fail-safe programme from scratch. She might weigh up both approaches, and consult colleagues for their views. Having evaluated all options, she concludes that starting over would only take a few more hours’ extra work and chooses this option, also based on the critical factor that fixing the existing software might still leave the risk of future problems. This kind of measured decision over resource allocation and use of time could lead to greater immediate recognition in the workplace, more responsibility from their manager and a better chance of promotion in the future. It also highlights the engineer’s proactivity – instead of waiting for permission to make tough decisions, they acted to solve a problem.
Boost your analytical skills:
Analytical skills are regularly maligned; for many, they can conjure outdated visions of number-crunching accountants in front of complex spreadsheets.
In reality, they refer to a valuable group of skills which turn on your ability to piece together a lot of diverse information in front of you, then apply logical reasoning and thinking to find a reasonable and accurate conclusion.
The essential parts of analytical skills include:
- Complex problem solving - using a number of logical strategies to devise a solution when faced with a multi-faceted problem. It’s made into an even harder task when you have a broad mix of options in front of you and/or incomplete information at hand. For example, a call centre worker might be trying to troubleshoot a customer’s poor signal issues, or an electronics store manager might be trying to reduce theft. In both cases, practical problem solving tips include breaking down the problem into manageable steps and assessing the effectiveness of your solution after you’ve delivered it.
- Critical thinking - evaluating information objectively and rationally in order to come to a considered judgement. Typical questions in any project success based on information might be: where did you get the data from? Is it a reliable source? How old is it? What biases might be implicit within it? This process of question and answer can help determine if it should be used to help you solve the problem at hand.
- ‘Information ordering’ - being able to take multiple elements of information and find a system to structure them in a logical way. This can be particularly useful in the organisation of alphanumeric data or in the structuring of content in written materials.
Of course, being comfortable using maths and statistics is key here – as is knowing how to process quantities of new information. As a rule of thumb, any opportunity to nurture your analytical skills can help develop effective learning strategies. It’ll also help to practise the maintenance of a growth mindset - the belief that you have the potential to keep learning and growing from experiences.
Most of us face challenges inside and outside the workplace that require analytical thinking, and there are plenty of tools to help you. Keep your mind stimulated with time-honoured activities such as chess or puzzles. Alternatively, you could practise your analytical thinking skills with brain-training apps based on games such as Lumosity and Sudoku. To help with structure at work, it could be worth trying analytical tools such as task management apps like Trello.
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