Learn to Screen Job Candidates for Transferable Skills

Need to look outside your comfort zone to find new applicants? Think about how your organization can demonstrate flexibility to potential interviewees—as well as the opportunity to train them.

Whether your goal is to hire the new boss or to bring in an entry-level employee, life is hard out there for a recruiter.

It’s an applicant’s market, and you may need to get creative about what exactly you want, at a time when the job pool is made up of candidates who might not have the industry-specific experience or level of education you’re looking for.

But there’s still room to make a situation like this work. (After all, not having a bachelor’s degree is no longer the negative it used to be.) It just means you might need to rethink your approach to assessing whether someone could be a good fit for a given role—an approach called transferable skills.

What Are Transferable Skills?

Transferable skills refer to basic concepts that can move between different fields, even when it seems as if the skills accrued in past roles have little to do with the work you’re hiring for. For recruiters, it means looking for fundamental skills that can be built upon under the right circumstances.

Maurice Cayer, Ph.D., a distinguished lecturer on human resources topics at the University of New Haven, described skills and abilities such as learning new things in a structured format, managing projects, managing situations responsibly, and capably communicating with others.

Looking for transferable skills can be an effective way to uncover talented potential employees who may not have the exact experience you’re looking for but whose history demonstrates the ability to grow into a role. According to Cayer, companies such as Google and Apple use this approach to help detect raw talent.

“They hire many people without college degrees because they find that you don’t need a college degree to learn programming or coding,” Cayer said of the tech giants. “And they remove the barrier of having that somewhat artificial college degree as a roadblock.”

The Benefits for Applicants

For workers looking to make a shift into a new sector such as associations, tapping into transferable skills could be a great way to try out a new field, according to Cayer.

“There has been no better time, in many decades, to have this kind of problem,” he said of the job market for employees. “There are job openings for almost every employed person.”

Of course, uncovering the skills needed to tap into those roles is crucial. For applicants, Cayer emphasized it was important for them to “take a helicopter ride, get on the balcony,” and get a high-level view of their skills. He said soft skills often prove especially valuable in areas such as hospitality, which could translate to positions in membership and event planning.

He added that a key transferable skill is the ability to learn new things and apply those lessons to new areas. Cayer used the example of C++ programming; it may not be a skill that a prospective employee knows, but if the candidate shows the ability to learn how to program in a structured format, that person might be a good fit regardless.

“Being able to learn things, to apply some structured learning activities to learn new things? That convinces prospective employers that you’re worth the chance,” Cayer said.

How Employers Can Adapt

For employers, learning how to screen for transferable skills comes down to taking a close look at what the work entails, Cayer said.

“They have to intentionally and deliberately say that there are skills that we’re requiring for some of our high-headcount job openings,” he explained. “And aside from a college degree, what are the actual skills that we’re looking for?”

Hiring with an eye toward transferable skills is an opportunity for organizations to pinpoint the skills that recruits need for a given role. From there, they can help new talent bring those skills into areas they may never have touched previously, with both parties going in with an open-ended mindset. Already, some organizations are finding success pulling in event-oriented employees from other fields.

“If you’ve never run a conference, chances are there’s something about organizing people, putting together a spreadsheet, who’s going to do what, identifying timeframes and resources,” Cayer said, adding that even without experience, “you probably have some transferable skills.”

He also recommended positioning the organization in a smart way that can make it attractive to applicants, leaning on potential new learning experiences, even if the pay isn’t something you want to play up.

“People will frequently make trade-offs to work for an organization that provides advancement opportunities, training, development opportunities, and a position offering flexibility,” Cayer said.

A strong mission also helps, he added. After all, pulling in people with strong capabilities goes over better if the organization puts its mission first.

(dontree_m/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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