Recruiting for Transferable Skills

I recently spoke at a workshop on the topic of recruitment based on transferable skills.  As I prepared for the workshop, I realized that I’ve been focusing on recruiting candidates with transferable skills for my entire HR career.  My first HR job was all about recruiting – I worked for a building product manufacturer, and it was rare that someone we hired had the exact skill set that we were seeking.  I would look for similar skills, possibly learned in other industries or jobs, and use the interview to figure out if the candidate knew how to transfer these skills to a job in our company. 

I continued to recruit this way during all the years I worked in non-profit organizations.  Often we were competing with oil & gas or other industries for employees, so we had to be creative in how we sourced and hired staff.  I would again look for skills that the candidate might have learned in a past job, or even during their education, and figure out if they could transfer that skill to our organization. 

Obviously I have always had other criteria to meet in recruitment as well, such as a minimum education and experience component, and certain backgrounds that fit best depending on the job.  However, the transferable skills continued to hold up as very good measures for whether a candidate would be successful.

Many, many times I have told a hiring manager a long-standing piece of HR wisdom: “You can train for skill but you can’t train for attitude”. This would be the case when a candidate didn’t have the exact background we wanted, but they had a positive attitude, a great customer service focus, or an analytical mind (to give a few examples).  It would be foolish to expect the perfect candidate to appear with experience in every process and software your organization uses, especially when these are often highly customized.  Hiring based on the person’s transferable skills is a much better measurement.

What are transferable skills?  They are either those skills that come naturally to us (being mechanically inclined, for example) or those that we’ve learned throughout our lives, whether it be at work, at home, or through sports or hobbies. 

Some examples would be:

·         Analytical thinking

·         Ability to work with a team

·         Communications

·         Organizational ability

·         Ongoing learning (how to teach yourself something new)

Why are we talking about transferable skills now?  The workshop where I presented this topic was all about disruption in the workplace.  While transferable skills don’t seem disruptive on their own, focusing a recruitment process on them (rather than on technical skills or competencies) is different.

Why is it important to think about transferable skills when hiring?

1.       Career paths are not linear.  People are not staying in jobs for their entire career as they used to.  In fact, people aren’t even staying in the same industry.  Here in Calgary we’ve seen a major shake-up, where employees who may have spent their whole lives in oil and gas have been forced by the economy to find jobs in different industries.  People are finding success in their careers by developing and articulating their transferable skills, and employers need to start measuring success in the same way.

2.       New industries won’t have experienced workers.  If we think back forty years or so, it was probably difficult to find someone with the exact technical skills and experience to be an IT specialist.  Computers were new, so not many people had years of experience with them.  I expect that the people who did well in IT back then had transferable skills in analytical thinking and the ability to teach themselves new things.  The same applies now to emerging industries areas like AI and renewable energy.  To recruit staff for new industries, we’ll have to think beyond exact requirements.

3.       Diversity.  Employees who move to Canada from other countries will bring technical skills and experience that might not match the criteria we’ve used to hire in the past.  We need to look for transferable skills that they’ve learned elsewhere in order to diversify our workforces and find the very best people for the job.

4.       You can train for skill, but you can’t train for attitude. You can train people on transferable skills, especially things like team focus and organization.  But it’s much easier to hire someone who already has the transferable skills the job requires, and less easy to find the exact technical skills, like a certain software program.

I’ve hired many, many people over the years, and some of the most successful recruitments were based on transferable skills.  It’s rare that an employee will be unsuccessful because they lack a technical skill, but it’s very common for an employee to have issues on the job because they don’t have a transferable skill.  Think about the most difficult people you’ve worked with (or for).  What was the real problem?  The fact that they weren’t good with Excel, or the fact that they didn’t have the ability or the motivation to learn new things?  Most often, problems arise due to a lack of the correct transferable skills.

As the world of work continues to change, we need to be ready to change with it, and that includes learning to clearly assess and select the people we need to make our companies successful.