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Strategic Portrayal of Transferable Job Skills is a Vital Job-Search Technique
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
One of the most important concepts you will ever encounter in the job-hunting process is that of transferable job skills. In fact, I tell my undergraduate college students that transferable skills is the most important idea I mention all semester. The deft use of transferable skills should pervade your job search and be a key factor in your resume, cover letter, and interview strategies.
What are transferable skills? Simply put, they are skills you have acquired during any activity in your life -- jobs, classes, projects, parenting, hobbies, sports, virtually anything -- that are transferable and applicable to what you want to do in your next job.
In resumes, cover letters, and during interviews, you should always portray your skills as applicable to the job you seek. If you have good experience and you're seeking in a job in the same field you've pursued in the past, portraying your skills as transferable is relatively easy. But if you are changing careers and seeking to do something entirely different from what you've done in the past, or you are a college student or other entry-level jobseeker without much experience, you have a much more difficult task ahead of you.
Let's first look at the career-changer's dilemma first. I was recently asked to do a resume makeover for a woman who wanted to become an account representative (sales, in other words). I won't tell you what field she sought to change from; see if you can guess it from this entry on her old resume about her current job:
- Utilize personal computer for word processing, spreadsheets, and graphic design including internal/external correspondence, reports, procedure manuals and presentations.
- Create and distribute a variety of queries and reports using Access.
- Process confidential employee records such as salary changes, vacation/absenteeism reports and performance appraisals, etc.
- Complete and submit invoices to process for payments.
- Schedule meetings/appointments and make travel arrangements.
- Accountable for reconciliation of expense reports.
- Develop and maintain product application guides using flowcharts.
Did you guess secretary? You're right. Her resume screams "secretary," not account representative.
I told her that if she really wanted an account rep position, she was emphasizing the wrong skills. She should not have been emphasizing clerical and secretarial skills -- or even computer skills. None of those skills is even mentioned in the ads she sent me typifying the kind of job she wanted.
I told her she should be emphasizing sales, customer service, interpersonal, and communications skills. Almost nothing in her current job -- the way she portrayed it on her old resume -- supported her desire to be an account rep. Yet, I'm sure her job requires great interpersonal skills, and she interacts with lots of different people and solve the problems of her boss and others. Those are the kinds of skills needed in the account rep jobs.
For example, I told her that instead of saying "Schedule meetings/appointments and make travel arrangements," she should say "Interact with a wide variety of personalities to schedule meetings and make travel arrangements."
That's what you need to do if you're seeking a new job. Think of everything you've done in terms of how it is transferable to what you want to be doing and portray it that way.
For every item on your resume, think: How can I portray this skill so that it supports the idea of doing what I want to do in my next job? If you can't make it support what you want to do, leave it out.
The classic examples I show my students about how a college student can portray transferable skills come from Donald Asher's book, From College to Career, one of the best resumes books available for college students.
Look at how Asher takes a typical lowly job held by a college student, that of receptionist, and portrays it as applicable to her desire to work in finance:
- Proved ability to deal with a wide range of individuals, including high-net-worth investors and institutional money manager, in a stressful and time-sensitive environment.
- Gained knowledge of financial markets and instruments, especially stocks, bonds, futures and options.
Now see how he makes a waitress seem like just the person you'd want to hire in an entry-level marketing job by portraying her skills as transferable:
- Act as a "sales representative" for the restaurant, selling add-ons and extras to achieve one of the highest per-ticket and per-night sales averages.
- Prioritize and juggle dozens of simultaneous responsibilities.
- Have built loyal clientele of regulars in addition to tourist trade.
- Use computer daily.
For a discussion of how to portray transferable skills in a cover letter, read an excerpt on the subject from my book, Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates.
To know what skills to emphasize, you will probably have to do some research on the company at which you seek employment and the particular job you're applying for. If you're responding to an ad, it's easy to find clues right in the ad to the most important skills. You can also scarcely go wrong by emphasizing the skills that virtually all employers are looking for, such as teamwork, communications, interpersonal, and leadership skills. Follow this link to see a detailed list of transferable skills.
Go back to Quintessential Careers: Transferable Skills.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Notes on resources quoted in this article: Donald Asher is a nationally known writer and speaker on careers and career development issues. He is author of numerous job and career books... and he is also one of our Quintessential Careers Career Masterminds.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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