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Do I Have Enough Transferable Skills to Change Careers?

Craig Stevens

Copywriter, Digital Asset Manager, and Business Analyst


When we approach anything new, we often experience one of two responses:

  1. This looks great
  2. Wait, how the hell am I supposed to do that?

It’s a journey of being excited by something, not just because it’s innately interesting, but because it’s new. Then you start thinking about it. You start to understand that not only is it more complex than you first thought, but you’re not even sure how to make that change, and you know that the process will bring you on an unpredictable adventure.

The Hero’s Journey

Ponder this. The concept of the hero’s journey is so archetypal that we see it appearing in stories from centuries ago all the way to the present day. One of the stages of the journey is the refusal of the call. This is when a hero might turn away from the adventure they’ve been called to because it looks so scary or because they’ve been hurt on adventures before. In Star Wars, Luke initially refuses to go with Obi-Wan. In The Lord of the Rings films, Frodo wants to leave Rivendell and go back to Hobbiton. 

To change careers is a call to adventure, especially if it means making a substantial change. You can always choose to bow out at the thought of failure. However, there are ways to make it easier… to give you a little boost of confidence, and that’s to answer the question of ‘what is a transferable skill?’

What is a transferable skill?

Transferable skills are skills that can be applied in multiple roles. If you don’t know what yours are, try mapping out some elements that could help you discover some special skillsets:

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  • Technical – This could be programming languages, APIs, use of specific tools etc.
  • Measurable Successes – This could be delivery of projects, rearchitecting something to improve its performance etc.
  • Leadership – What leadership experience do you have? This doesn’t necessarily have to be formalized by a job title. It could be a moment when you got an out-of-control situation under control.
  • Bravery/Passion – Have you done something courageous like discovering you have a disability or facing up to a serious illness and still doing something you valued anyway?

Combined, these four elements can reveal specific skills you may posses, such as communication, initiative, leadership, and fortitude to persist when times get hard.

Now identify the skills most required in your chosen new career path. One effective way to understand this is to look at job ads on JobSearcher. Write down the required skills that are repeated on each job listing, and compare and contrast the skillsets you possess vs the skillsets that are a priority in your desired field.

Then, you can start to explore to what extent you can discover transferable skills and connect your existing skills to those in your new role.

The First Threshold

Thinking back to the hero’s journey, the first threshold is the point at which the hero truly accepts the adventure that they’re on. You are now able to answer the key question “what is a transferable skill?”. You have identified some of your greatest skills. You have identified key skills in the role you are thinking about pursuing. Now you have a decision to make.

Do your existing skills enable you to stand a decent chance of getting a job in the new career that you’ve chosen? You need to be honest with yourself. A general rule of applying for jobs is that if you don’t have at least 70% of what a recruiter is asking for, you probably shouldn’t apply. No-one has 100%, but you need to show that you’re within striking distance. If you aren’t, then you’ll continually face the disappointment of rejection.

If your skills don’t match up, then that can be disappointing, but it is better to find out now than later. The question is in what way do you fall short. If you lack enough transferable skills, then perhaps you can do some training.

Training Can Make Up for a Lack of Transferable Skills

If you find yourself in this position, then you have to calculate the level of training necessary. It is mostly dependent on how your transferable skills match up with the skills required in your desired field. As you analyze and decide the level of training that is necessary, you will also have to decide if it is worth the investment.

What is a transferable skill? Training can help fill in the gaps.

If it’s vocational and you’ll have the skills down pact in 16 weeks, then 4 – 8 weeks afterwards, you can create something for your portfolio. Then the commitment in time and resources likely won’t be a huge factor. However, if it’s another degree, then you have decisions to make: how much do you want it, can you afford it and is it realistically going to get you a job?

The choice here is a personal one and is based on your existing commitments and resources. You could choose to look at a career path that’s closer to the transferable skills you possess and doesn’t require such extensive training.

So perhaps you can’t get there by next year, but maybe by taking enough smaller steps you could get there in five years or ten. If that sounds like a marathon, that’s because it is. On the hero’s journeys, Luke lost a hand, and Frodo lost the finger, on which he wore the ring. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Change careers

If you have the transferable skills to do the job, then what do you do? Create an updated version of your resume, or maybe even an entirely new resume altogether oriented to your new profession. Keep this as a baseline master copy.

Then, start applying for jobs. Take that master copy of your resume, and tailor it for each job by aligning your skills with the role. If there’s an opportunity to write a cover letter, take it. That way you can communicate your capability in your own words. Keep your cover letter simple, no more than a few paragraphs. In one of those paragraphs, connect the dots for your recruiter. Make it easy for them to understand how your experience of showing initiative or leading a project in your previous career makes you suitable for this new role. 

If you don’t get an answer within a few days or a week, email them or message the recruiter on LinkedIn. A simple message to say that you’re excited about the role, identifying the most powerful reason why you’re a great fit for the role and saying that you’d love to have an interview will be great. If they don’t respond, then maybe they’ve got a slow process or maybe you haven’t made the cut. Don’t wait for them. Keep applying.

Interviewing in a New Career

Once you land an interview, the key question is who is the first interview with? If it’s a recruiter, then the interview will be a filtering process before you interview with the person you’d be working for. You should at least be prepared to talk about one powerful example of why you’re suitable. However, this interview will likely be more about:

  • whether you’d be willing to move
  • what your availability is
  • what salary you’re looking for
  • etc.

If your interview is with someone in the department, then the interview is going to be more aligned around your capability to do the job in more specific ways. They’ll be looking for signs that you either have specific experience or experience that can be easily transferred into the role.

They want to know that you have the correct skills and the character to work in this role in this company, so make sure that you can explain how your skills make you the perfect candidate, and be ready to pair them with practical workplace examples. Don’t draw attention to places where you fall a little short.

Temper your expectations

Even in your old field, if you applied for jobs, you’d never expect to apply for five jobs in one week and be offered all of them. If you got interviews for two, you’d probably feel like you were doing well, and you’d be right. So, when you start applying for jobs in the new field you’ve selected, know that you’ll get turned down for jobs… probably more often than you’re used to.

However, what you learn along the way can be used to improve your chances. Do you keep hearing people in interviews asking the same questions? That tells you that you need to be capable of addressing this point. If you get multiple refusals saying the same thing, take the feedback and use it to move forward.

Remember: As scary as the journey was, Luke destroyed the Death Star.

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