You’re Not Starting From Zero: Call Out Your Transferable Skills

A brand-name employer we work with was hoping to hire more sales consultants for their IT services division.

“You know,” the hiring manager said. “Some of our most successful employees are former teachers.”

The manager had noticed something: these former teachers — because of their experience working with students, parents, and administrators — had exceptional skills in understanding and adapting to the needs of different customers. Put another way, the teachers had transferable skills that made them well qualified for sales and client service positions outside of the education field.

What about you? As you consider your job options, what underlying skills have you gained over the years?

This is an especially important question for returners who are looking to return to the workforce after a career break for caregiving reasons.

Don’t start off by assuming your skills are not applicable to jobs advertised today. In fact, you have skills from both before and during your career break. Plus you offer experience, maturity, and the ability to get things done. You’re not starting from zero.

What is a Transferable Skill?

A transferable skill is “an ability or expertise which may be used in a variety of roles or occupations.”

In other words, skills are skills. But there’s rarely a one-to-one match between what a skill is called or how it’s applied in one setting compared to another.

“That’s one blindspot we sometimes see among returners and employers,” says Lordess Townsend, program manager at Path Forward. “What you did before or in a different field can be very relevant to whatever new job you’re applying to. It just might not be obvious. So it’s really to the returner’s advantage to think about the connections and call them out to the employer.”

Many forward-thinking managers recognize that the underlying competencies are often the same.

“You’d be surprised at how much of your experience and skills can transfer to our roles — plus we teach you,” says Eryn Brodsky of Dell Technologies. “What you need is to be a self-starter, have a passion to learn, be good at solving problems and listening to people, and really want to invest in your customer’s success and future growth.”

Determine What Skills You Have

A “skills analysis” is a good place to start. It’s usually one of the first things you’ll do if working with a career coach or when participating in one of the free skills workshops offered within the Path Forward Community.

Ideally, you’ll review your past experiences and bring forward the skills you gained within the following three areas:

  • during your previous career,
  • while on your career break, and
  • as part of caregiving.

What skills did you gain in your previous career?

Dig out your old resumes and think back on previous jobs. Consider your past experience in terms of the soft and hard skills you acquired and used.

Soft skills include the ability to collaborate with colleagues, problem solve, demonstrate empathy, and self-manage your time and priorities. In many surveys – such as LinkedIn’s annual list of the most in-demand hard and soft skills – employers indicate that soft skills are among the most prized.

Hard skills are the technical skills you possess. These include basic skills for working and collaborating in the modern workplace as well as the necessary skills and knowledge for a particular position.

For fields where technical knowledge is key, don’t discount your skills even if what you learned is now obsolete. Many of the managers that Path Forward collaborates with say this explicitly – they are looking for foundational knowledge and a willingness to learn.

“Ours are developer positions, so you do need to be able to code,” says Kwesi Legget, engineering manager at Collective Health. “But we’re not looking for you to know the latest and greatest technology – we can teach you that. Ultimately we’re looking for people who can solve problems, specifically people with different backgrounds who come at problems with completely different solutions.”

As you review your past work history, jot down examples of when you used key skills. These examples will be useful to you later as you prepare for job interviews, particularly those that include behavioral interview questions. If you’re noticing holes in your knowledge that you’d like to fill – in order to build your confidence, make your resume more competitive, or both – consider different options for gaining experience or for upskilling.

What skills did you gain while on your career break?

During your career break, you probably undertook projects that added to your skill set, even if you didn’t realize that’s what you were doing!

“We know that people who leave the workforce are not sitting idle,” says Tarra Reynolds, diversity program advisor at Chevron. “You may have taken classes, earned a degree, or gained project management skills through volunteering or managing the family. We not only want to tap into the skills and capabilities that you had before you left the workforce, but also that you honed in the time that you’ve been out of the workforce.”

The skills you gained while volunteering, consulting, or freelancing are part of your pool of transferable skills. When relevant to the job you’re applying for, you’ll want to call out these skills and experiences to bolster your resume, cover letter, or interview.

What skills did you gain as part of caregiving?

The very act of providing care – whether for kids, family, self, or others – involves many skills that caregivers practice and hone each day.

Kim Poletti, one of Path Forward’s alumni, noted that her experience in a returnship program “allowed me to show what I am capable of and prove I did not have a lobotomy when I had children. My experience and skills are transferable… The emotional intelligence and ability to multitask gained from raising two children for 12 years serves me well.”

The following is a list of skills caregivers develop that are applicable to the workplace:

  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Advocacy
  • Negotiation and persuasion
  • Project management
  • Organizational and multitasking
  • Interpersonal and collaboration
  • Care management
  • Budgeting
  • Property management
  • Self-management

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Research: Caregiver Employees Bring Unique Value to Companies,” found that caregivers bring unique skillsets to the workplace that positively impact culture, retention, and ultimately the bottom line.

Do employers really count skills such as these? Many do!

“The returnship program allows us to bring people into the company with a really unique set of skills that come with a career break,” says Michael Masiello, senior vice president at Audible. “For example, those with a caregiving break may have significant experience in time management and juggling priorities, navigating ambiguity, managing different stakeholders. After candidates go through the program and receive support to ramp up, these skilled professionals can then become super-powered mentors for the more junior members of our team.”

Call Out Your Skills to Employers

Once you have a handle on what skills you have, the next step is to “translate” those skills for employers in a way that can be used in your cover letter, resume, or interview. The FlexJob website provides a good example of this for someone applying for a sales role:

In describing your job as a customer support specialist, you might have a bullet point that says:
Answered customer questions and solved customer problems

You could adjust that to say:
Established and maintained positive relationships with clients and customers by answering their questions and assisting them in troubleshooting, resulting in a 97% satisfaction rate

See how that draws stronger connections to what would be required of you in a sales position?

The goal is to frame your skills in a way that connects the dots for the recruiter or hiring manager. It may take a lot of word smithing and summarizing, plus numbers are always powerful in communicating the results of what you did. A career coach or resume writer is often a good resource for writing and presenting your skills in the best light.

You can also do this on your own using the STAR Method. This method is usually recommended when preparing for a behavioral interview, but it’s also helpful to think about your transferable skills in terms of Situation, Task, Action, and Result. You want to develop proof points for skills that are relevant to the new job and communicate them in a succinct and engaging way.

In addition to your skills, employers are also looking for “fit” in terms of your approach to work. One returner told us the best advice she has for job seekers is this: look at the organization’s website and find the priorities or values statement. Communicate how your priorities match that of the employer’s. For example, if applying for a job with Amazon, it’s to your advantage to make the connection between an Amazon leadership principle such as “customer obsession” with your own approach to earning and keeping the trust of customers.

Some Final Thoughts

Not all recruiters or hiring managers have the culture and flexibility to select individuals with transferable skills. Some will overlook great candidates who have much to offer but need training and ramp up time. This is a “screen out” mindset that Path Forward works to change and a key part of our mission.

Organizations that want to create strong teams recognize the value of transferable skills and returner employees. “Mid-career talent is some of the hardest talent to find,” says Michael Masiello of Audible. “Returners are a pool of folks who have that experience, with transferable skills, that can help make your existing team better. They come to the job truly ready to solve problems and contribute.”