Updated on 09.17.14

The Power of Transferrable Skills

Trent Hamm

The Awakening.  Photo by kwerfeldeinWhen I was in college, the vast majority of my classes were effectively training for a career in research and scientific data management. Seven years after graduation, though, I find myself drawing instead on the transferrable skills I picked up in other classes: public speaking, writing, leadership, information management, and so on. To put it simply, transferrable skills are those things that you can utilize no matter what specific career path you find yourself on.

Transferrable skills are often left by the wayside in competitive college majors. In order for a computer science major to get a leg up in the post-graduation workplace, for example, it’s often preferable to jam in another programming or algorithms class than it is to insert another public speaking class. Even if the program does require classes on transferrable skills, those classes are often looked down upon as “blow off” classes – ones that have to be finished in order to get down to the real classes within the major.

I believe this is a mistake. As change in this world accelerates, people are spending less and less of their life strapped to one particular career. They have the freedom to choose other avenues – starting a new career, starting their own businesses, and so on. In that environment, transferrable skills become more and more valuable. In fact, a well-polished transferrable skill makes for brilliant resume fodder no matter what your job – communication skills and leadership experience are a plus for almost any post-college job you might apply for.

Obviously, course loads often aren’t very flexible in a college environment, so my recommendation would be for college students to seek out other sources for picking up and mastering transferrable skills – extracurricular activities, internships, and other sources. Beyond college, transferrable skills are useful for everyone to work on at any stage in one’s career

Six Transferrable Skills Worth Working On

1. Leadership

Can you actually lead a team? Can you herd a group of people towards a greater purpose? Are you self-motivated enough to do this? Can you set goals and actually achieve them? Can you plan large projects and push them forward?

How can I get it? Join a community or student organization and take charge of a large project. Later, run for a leadership position within that group. The best way to learn leadership skills is to learn them in the laboratory of life, and organizations provide the perfect opportunity.

2. Administrative skills

Are you able to prioritize the tasks in front of you? Can you analyze information and then describe it in layman’s terms for others to understand? Can you interpret rules and use them effectively?

How can I get it? Get involved in the planning of as many large projects as you can. Project planning teaches you many of the administrative skills you’ll need in life. If there is a large project, volunteer to help with the planning – if there’s already a planner in place, learn everything you can from that planner.

3. Information management

Can you actually research a topic? Can you take a pile of research and use it to answer worthwhile questions? Can you communicate those facts to others? Can you manage a budget and handle financial records? Can you use a wide variety of computer programs?

How can I get it? If there are opportunities to present anywhere around you, take them, even if you aren’t familiar with the topic. Of particular use are topic areas where you’ll have to do some research in order to get the presentation right. Another great avenue is to volunteer to be the secretary or (particularly) the treasurer for a group. Such activities will require you to carefully manage a large amount of information on behalf of a large group.

4. Creativity

Can you come up with interesting ideas of all kinds? Are you good at coming up with marketing ideas? Are you good at formulating the next step in a process? Are you good at creating visually appealing layouts?

How can I get it? Create some websites for groups – and learn how to do it along the way. Whenever there’s an opportunity for brainstorming, get involved and throw out ideas. Creativity is something that is best learned by practice – so practice it.

5. Interpersonal communications

Are you willing to speak in public? Can you communicate your ideas well in writing? Can you lead a conversation? When you communicate with others, do they understand your ideas?

How can I get it? Participate in conversations and meetings instead of just sitting there. Volunteer for any and all public speaking opportunities that come your way. Volunteer for difficult and arduous tasks of documentation – that’s the best way possible to practice writing to communicate information.

6. Personal development

Can you use the experiences in your life as a source for growth and personal change? Do you have a personal moral code that you actually follow? Can you effectively and honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of others (both people and things)? Can you deal with stress?

How can I get it? Don’t shy away from challenges – step up to big projects. Keep a journal and use it to explore what you really think about things, particularly the people around you.

Every moment you spend learning the above skills is a valuable moment. You’ll find yourself returning to these skills time and time again throughout your life – and they’ll provide a surprisingly strong backbone for your career and personal success.

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  1. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    I think this is a great list and a neat way to approach this topic, especially in a recession.

    The only thing I would add is Integrity. It’s the first thing I look for in people that I work with. Like some of these others it hard to show on a resume, but experience interviewer are great picking apart those who lack this trait.

  2. Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Nice post. I would suggest being as broad as possible early in your education. If you’re majoring in something like finance or economics make sure you make time to learn things outside your major. Take technology classes so you’ll understand the companies you’ll be studying. Take marketing classes because sales are at the heart of any business – even blogging! Study the behavioral sciences – poly sci, econ, psych, sociology, etc. Take a logic class. Tackle things that frighten you, like accounting if that happens to be the case, or drama – which lots of executives are taking nowadays to become better presenters. Make sure you get your degree on time, but take the time to look around!

  3. I saw a video some time back which raised the question, how do we train students in school who by the time graduate will be living in a completely different world. I think picking up transferable skills can be a stating point…

  4. Candi says:

    Hmmm I think I have to disagree to an extent. Having a science degree, I found my blowoff classes to be a total waste of my time and my skill. The only benefit I have found from having a philosophy class is that occasionally I get a question correct on jeopardy. I certainly didn’t need it in my career, in my life or for my life skills. I resent wasting my money on classes that are very much not needed. Certainly if education were free, I would have multiple degrees in subjects only useful on jeopardy. Alas they are not. I think you do overburdened and possibly in debt students a diservice by suggesting that they take more unneeded “life building” courses.

    However, those kinds of classes are usually fun and informative. The skills learned can carry over into other parts of one’s life. Its just that they are not free. . .

  5. Anne says:

    Wow, I was just thinking about this this afternoon. My degree is certainly valuable but I was thinking back on how my work study job is probably what helped me out the most right out of school. I developed a really strong office-y skill set, worked the same job for 3 years (two way street, I didn’t job hop and they asked me back each semester), and could show progression in skills and responsibility within the office.

    Don’t know if this would be as true for a more technical/scientific degree (B.S.) but it was a hugely helpful add-on for a B.A.

  6. Mike Sty says:

    I agree with Candi, but Trent doesn’t focus much on taking courses for those. I take as many in-major courses as I can to help my career. I hone transferable skills by doing extracurricular stuff, which i think Trent was primarily trying to suggest – and he’s right. Being able to network with peers and instructors a like has really done a lot for me, as has all of the other stuff I do. I see people who take leadership classes or “minor in leadership” and I really wonder if that’s really any good.

    So, in summary, college courses are indeed expensive and should be spent on learning your trade/field, but learning transferable skills is just a matter of using your own time wisely.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Candi: I’m not talking about philosophy classes. I’m talking about actual transferable skills.

  8. Johanna says:

    Great topic, and some good insights. In my experience, though – and I was also a science major – there are plenty of transferrable skills to be learned in science classes. You just need to realize that you’re learning them.

    For example, a lot of science students take organic chemistry, and most of them hate it. The reason they hate it is because they’re doing it wrong. They treat the course material as hundreds of independent facts to be memorized, when in fact it’s nearly impossible to do well in the class using that approach. What you’re really supposed to do is to organize and store all that information in your brain in a way that makes sense – to identify patterns among all the different molecules and reactions, and to develop an intuitive feel for the way organic chemicals behave. The people who do well are the ones who figure this out. And once you figure it out, it’s a skill you can use in other areas too.

    For another example, at the end of my first year in grad school, my classmates and I had to take a mammoth three-day exam, with problems drawing on topics that we’d never had to use before or since. It was expected that we’d spend the whole summer studying. Doesn’t that sound pointless? But I was talking with one of my professors about it, and she said, “The reason we make you do this is so that you’ll feel comfortable identifying the gaps in your knowledge and seeking out the information to fill them in on your own, rather than waiting to be taught in a classroom.” And of course, that’s a great skill to have too.

    In short, when you study science in college (and in grad school), you really learn how to *learn*, which is perhaps the most powerful transferrable skill of all.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Excellent point, Johanna. I would agree that the ability to self-learn is heavily tied to a major in a hard science.

  10. Mike Sty says:

    Johanna makes a great point – I’ve picked that up in a lot of courses. At my college, almost all engineers have to take a certain “college core” that typically consists of rigorous studies of motion – statics and dynamics. I’ve found that these courses are much harder than at other universities, and the main professor who teaches them goes out of his way to present a problem-solving experience. Even though these courses had absolutely nothing to do with my major, I learned a lot about how to approach problems and finding solutions methodically.

    Adding to what she said, I learned the same thing in my theoretical statistics course – lots of calculus, lots of “memorization” of distributions. But the key was to understand how the distributions were formed, what they represented, and when to apply various calculus techniques to solve for a valid answer. The teacher also had a strategy where it was damn near impossible to get a 100% on the exam – 60’s and 70’s were considered A’s. I picked up on this and did rather well – good friends of mine failed to recognize this approach and didn’t do so well.

  11. AG says:

    Simple yet precious things everyone should realize. Transferable indeed, awesome post Trent :)

  12. I took environmental engineering in school. After 3 years full time and 36 total courses, I currently use 1 of those courses in my current career.

    I would have loved to see more courses that are driven to a specific career instead of just 36 general courses. I basically wasted my time on 35 courses.

  13. lurker carl says:

    The best teachers in my life not only knew how to instruct but also effectively explained why the knowledge was important and how to apply it. Reasons for retaining and applying knowledge are great motivators for me.

    Learning to learn and the ability to teach yourself are among the most important things that anyone can do to improve their lot in life.

  14. Related to the transferrable skill of leadership/teamwork, in this connected/disjointed world my view is that an Opportunity-Maker kind of leader and a Facilitative kind will be especially sought-after.
    Why? Because they enable the right players to quickly form a team to tackle a problem or seize and opportunity – to their mutual benefit.

    Here’s the traits/behaviors that are vital to this Obama-style leader for the new, New Normal world in which we live

    BTW – As a former WSJ reporter, I LOVE the news-you-can-use flavor of this site + of Wise Bread, from whence I came here.

  15. Amateur says:

    Don’t forget, to learn how to write in The English, or Engrish, what have you. Although the national language is English, most people don’t know how to use it in its proper written form.

  16. Anne KD says:

    Trent, I disagree with your suggestion to jump in to lead a big project. That’s probably too hard for a lot of people. Where to start, how to manage a team, and the rest- it’s too big a bite. I suggest taking on smaller projects first that add value to the organization. For instance, I volunteered to be one member of a fundraising committee for our chorus; we were putting together cookbooks for sale. Several months into the project she dumped it all on me. If she hadn’t already done plenty I don’t know whether we could have pulled it off.

    I am involved in another org and am now a very experienced teacher. My teacher didn’t put me in front of a class and say ‘take the whole class for an hour’, he just had me teach one or two beginning students for a few minutes, and as time went on gave me either more beginners or more experienced students to work with. After that, he had me take the full class for 5-10 minutes, then increased the time from there. This approach gave me the confidence to talk in front of people, plan a lesson for various levels, and eased me into teaching.

    Unless you already have some experience with running things, try to work on the sidelines first. Instead of running for treasurer, run for a board member position, or simply do something small and learn the ropes. Take notes (if only mentally)- how do the people in charge do things, what do you think could be done better and how?

  17. Excellent post! You are discussing the “soft” skils that are hard to come by, but are super valuable and provide for career flexibility.

    The good news is that it is never too late to develop and nurture them.

  18. Sense says:

    Excellent points! I would agree with most of them; i’m also in a scientific environment. I’m good at research and the science, but horrible at the inter-personal stuff that comes along with it. small talk at conferences, presenting in front of groups, etc. is a horrific experience for me.

    I would also add that once you get good at the soft skills, you have to also PRACTICE them. in grad school, i took a course that made me present every week. by the end, i was a pro. Now, 5 years later? I suck at it again. :(

  19. Kevin says:


    Good post. Something else which is transferable: the ability to spell correctly.

    Sorry! ;-)

  20. Johanna says:

    Kevin: If you’re talking about “transferrable” versus “transferable” – according to my dictionary, both spellings are correct.

  21. Jessica says:

    I think this is something very important to do. I just graduated with a BS in Poli Sci and will be starting law school in the fall. I took a variety of classes outside of my major to get exposure to different ways of thinking and useful skills. I took statistics, marketing, writing for the social sciences, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and numerous science courses I didnt’ have to take. While I probably didn’t learn any actual skills from philosophy, sociology, and psychology, I did learn how to look at a situation in a different light. The different theoretical approaches makes problem solving in the workplace easier for me. I am not in a scientific field, so those classes were probably more helpful to me than to others… And some of the skills that I didn’t pick up in classes, such as administrative skills, I have been fortunate enough to learn in the workplace.

  22. Mule Skinner says:

    My career was in computer science. Well before that, however, back in high school, I took typing and was the only boy in a room full of girls. Well! Almost every job I ever had required typing: pest control, military electronic technician, computer hardware repair, software development, computer consulting.

    Then, in college I took a course in “business writing” which was entirely optional, but turned out to be a wonderful investment. In software development and computer consulting this paid off big time, because I had to do reports constantly.

    This all leads me to the thought that the classic liberal arts curriculum is actually quite valuable. In the past I just thought it was for the snooty rich types who had no specific need to earn a living.

  23. Beth says:

    This is one of the best emails I’ve received from you Trent. I may not be interviewing now (who’s in a hiring mode?), but I’d like to be honing up on my resume, interview, and self-selling skills so I’m ready to move on when the right time hits. I’ve rarely seen such a matter-of-fact, logical, sucinct, helpful description of writing a selling resume. I’m saving it and can guarantee it’ll help me find the right place for me and I thank you for that. I’d love to see more career development issues here.

  24. Beth says:

    Candi, what you CAN take with you from philosophy class, is how to get along with people, appreciate their ideas and be a TEAM player who works with others to acheive the employer’s goals. I can’t tell you how many brilliant people I’ve seen lose jobs because they couldn’t work with a group. There’s IQ and EQ, and to really forge your own destiny and do exactly what you’ve always wanted to do, you need to develop skills in both: know your science, and work with people.

  25. Beth says:

    A lot of the skills T is talking about here are those you’d learn at the knee of the best mentor. Trying to give yourself a leg up and develop as many of these skills as soon as possible helps your career development if you don’t luck into a great mentor, or will help you get picked by the best mentor in the organization.

  26. tentaculistic says:

    Baker @ ManVsDebt “The only thing I would add is Integrity. It’s the first thing I look for in people that I work with. Like some of these others it hard to show on a resume, but experience interviewer are great picking apart those who lack this trait.”

    Baker, I’d like to know more about this. I understand your premise that integrity is important (I agree wholeheartedly, although the world-weary cynic in me pipes up that I’ve seen *plenty* of places where the slimebags got ahead consistently, J. Edgar Hoover style), but I’m curious about how interviewers screen for it. In all the interviews I’ve had or been in, the questions revolve around background, skills, knowledge, and ability to think under pressure. How do you ask about integrity? The only thing I can think of is a question in the Dorm Counselor process of what is a major regret I have had in life. Your comment is intriguing me as much as it puzzles me.

    -Lia Michel

  27. Tyler K says:

    This is one of the reasons I’ve benefited so much from my graphic design classes.
    We had many group projects where I had the opportunity to take the lead and work w/ 3-4 other people. Most of our projects included several parts so I need to make sure I was organized so I didn’t miss anything. If they weren’t done on time the teacher didn’t grade them. Late wasn’t an option.
    Every project needed to be researched thoroughly so I could defend every decision I made. More source material makes it easier to come up with new ideas. Creativity is also combining several ideas in a new way. Craftsmanship and attention to detail was an important part of creating the final product.
    Any ideas we had could be presented to the entire class for suggestions and advice. The last step was to present the final product to the class again for them to critique. I learned quickly how to take criticism and how to give it constructively.

  28. Jen says:

    Of course, the value of taking classes in “soft skills” depends entirely on how well said classes are taught. I had to take speech, composition, and critical-thinking courses in college, and they were a joke. Your suggestions on how to acquire these skills outside of the classroom are far more useful. :-)

  29. The funny thing is that a person who gets into the right project (that is, not a glorified techie position) in “PhD-school” will essentially learn all these skills (or prove that he already has them by surviving). Yet, the irony is that that person will believe that he has few valuable skills outside his technical expertise.

    On top of this, PhD-school will build such niceties as persistence, frustration-tolerance, and due to it being a 100 hour a week deal, nobody really has any time to develop an appreciation for spending money, which incidentally is good, since they won’t be earning much of it anyway, but I digress.

    A warning: I think the technical proficiency should not be ruled out or considered less important. There are few things worse than working with/for a clueless “soft-skill only” colleague/boss. (The jargon-loaded MBA type; think Dilbert cartoons).

    I’m also with ManVsDebt in that I think integrity and character is extremely important (more so that cleverness). A lack of integrity means that you can’t trust this guy’s numbers. It usually means that the person will do things that are good for him but not optimal for the organization (put out wrong reports, etc.). This means additional work fixing the problems left in the wake of such a person. This is particularly troublesome with today’s job hopper/shoppers who move on before their sh*t hits the fan. You actually see this often even in scientific research. In that regard “fake it until you make it” is a soft-skill attitude (which I really really hate) and this is why I think such “values” (or lack thereof) should be excised by demanding a certain level of technical proficiency (which can’t be faked).

  30. Jan says:

    This is a great list and I would like to add two more.

    1. Writing Skills

    2 Basic Bookkeeping Skills

    I have found these two skills to be invaluable in just about any professional, social and personal situation I have been in. Writing well is not only shows communication skills, it also shows ability for clear reasoning and intelligence.

    Regarding bookkeeping…understanding basic of budgets, income, expenses, equity and liabilities is essential from running a household to a big business.

    Keep the good information coming.

  31. TStrump says:

    If you ask me, the educational system is flawed in that there is this obsession with specialization.
    The world is changing at a breakneck speed so it’s important to be able to multi-task and do many different things.
    Plus, there are many small companies that don’t have huge budgets so you’ll end up wearing different hats in your day to day work.

  32. Joshua U says:

    Interpersonal communication is so important because we deal with people everyday. Until people “get it”, and experience the power of interpersonal communication, I believe a few of the other six skills like leadership and creativity will suck.

  33. I just hope that school will introduced more such skills. I don’t think it even hit 10% during my times.

  34. Bill in Houston says:

    While I have two business degrees my original college major was Electrical Engineering. In the 26 year gap between my high school graduation and my undergraduate degree I had several majors: Electrical Engineering, Accounting, Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Design, English Literature, Journalism, Manufacturing Systems Technology, Communication, and finally Business Administration.

    This schooling, coupled with the scattershot of odd jobs (pizzeria manager/cook, office clerk, drugstore clerk, security guard, construction) I had before settling down to a career has given me a broad skill set.

    I also believe that life consists of a continuing learning process. That learning can come from so many sources, but the key is to keep doing it.

    What I need? A prod. I’m in a comfortable job but there’s little chance for advancement.

  35. Lily says:

    I’d like to play devil’s advocate here. I’ve looked, but I have never seen ads for jobs asking for people who are excellent analysts of organization, or who are leaders. The ads want people who can sell, sell, sell, and who will work 80-hour weeks. And, on top of that, have specific experience of already doing that exact job using the latest computer app.

    That said, a person with poise and with leadership and teamwork experience may be able to bypass the dreaded HR department and create his/her job opportunities much higher up the food chain. But that is really a personalized case of sell, sell, sell.

    We already have scads of well-educated liberal arts graduates who could turn their hands to any number of jobs and execute them brilliantly. But those people are considered unqualified by our nation’s employers. After 200 years of industrialization, we’re back to being hired as “hands.” If I know a certain computer app and you don’t, I get the job even though you might be superior as a team leader, an organizer, or an analytical thinker.

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