Question: “How can I transfer my skills successfully to a new industry?”

There’s no question about it — many professionals today are enthusiastically exploring the idea of changing careers and finding a new paycheck-producing application for their skills, credentials, and qualifications.  In some cases, the motive behind this desire is simple survival, as some folks (e.g. mortgage brokers today, travel agents a few years ago…) reach the conclusion that their current field may not be able to sustain them due to the economic downturn and other emerging market conditions.  In other cases, however, the desire to make a switch is instead due to the desire for increased challenge and professional growth, such as when, say, an attorney or accountant decides they’re bored stiff after 20 years in the field and ready to try something new.

In either case, the catchphrase that usually ends up on people’s lips is “transferable skills” since they’ve probably read about this concept in “What Color is your Parachute?” and hundreds of other books, blogs, and articles devoted to the career-changing topic.  They’ve also likely had dozens of friends and supporters encourage them to pursue a new path, and to “transfer their skills” into a new industry, without these people offering much additional advice or direction on how to go about this process — or mentioning the specific fields that might value the person’s qualifications to a significant degree.

So in sharing my own perspective on this important question, as a career coach who purports to know a thing or two about such matters, I’d start by urging EVERYBODY out there to first focus on the critical (but largely forgotten) distinction between transferable skills and transferable strengths.  This is where so much of the confusion sets in.  Many people out there are wondering why they’re having trouble getting employers to recognize the value of their transferable skills, when in actuality what they’re trying to market to these employers aren’t skills at all, but strengths.  A skill isn’t a general tendency or some innate trait or characteristic you were born with.  It is a specialized (and demonstratable) ability to solve a certain problem or perform a certain task with a high level of proficiency.  By definition, in other words, it is something that can only be acquired through formal training or hands-on experience.  And the reality of the business world is that while these specialized skills often have a tremendous amount of value and transferability — more general personal strengths, unfortunately, do not.

The result of this distinction?  If you’re out there trying to get companies to hire you because you’re a “good communicator” or a “great creative problem-solver” it’s unlikely you’re going to have much success, because these qualities are strengths — not skills — and are therefore neither all that rare among the general population or all that likely to translate into immediate, tangible value from the employer’s standpoint.  If you can pair these natural strengths up with some more specialized skills and expertise, however, then you’ll likely generate a lot of interest across the table!  For example, as opposed to just telling people you’re a good communicator, make a point to instead showcase (using detailed success stories or portfolio pieces, if possible) your proven ability to write compelling advertising copy, author white papers, deliver compelling product demonstrations, or facilitate national training seminars to large groups of people using the WebEx platform.  And if you really are a creative problem-solver, don’t stop there.  Tell the employer that you see clear ways in which their business could benefit from your years of proven experience in rescuing troubled sales accounts, building trust with unionized labor leaders, overcoming software development bottlenecks, or sourcing and negotiating advantageous new contracts with key international vendors.

At the end of the day, it will be critical (if you’re looking to make a change) to take inventory of these more specialized aspects of your background, especially if you fall into the category of folks who aren’t simply looking to change careers, but who are instead looking to change careers without starting over in an entry-level job or taking a massive pay cut.   Unless you can bring bonafide skills and experience into play, it’s unlikely you’ll be to offer something specialized enough to warrant a price tag above the $30-40K range.  The average Starbucks barista, after all, is an incredibly hard-worker with good people skills, the ability to multi-task, and a knack for learning quickly — since, when you think about it, they DO have to master and learn how to quickly crank out thousands of bizarre espresso drink combinations!  Your job is to figure out what can you offer beyond this more general level of competency.  That’s the deep thinking that needs to go into the career change strategy of a mid-to-senior-level professional — and once you isolate a few key skills (again, ask yourself what you’ve tasks you’ve LEARNED how to perform on the job or what types of task-performance you could TEACH to others) you can then use tools like and informational interviewing to brainstorm other types of environments and occupations that might value them.

In the end, this may take a little more effort than you were hoping to expend, and may reflect a very narrow-minded perspective in terms of how companies evaluate talent, but you need to realize that these situations are fundamentally a question of “managing risk” on the part of the employer.  Most companies aren’t going to pay higher-end salaries to people who can’t convincingly demonstrate some degree of immediate value they would bring beyond any other candidate, such as a recent college graduate, that the company could hire and train for far less money.  And if it helps you get in the mindset of today’s employers, and how they view transferable skills, try this exercise.  Turn the tables around and ask whether you’d hire your dog groomer to cut your hair…or your plumber to rewire the electrical system in your house…or your friend who sells life insurance to represent you in a court of law.  In each case, there are clearly some associated strengths involved (e.g. experience with scissors, mechanical aptitude, persuasiveness …) but I suspect you’d more than likely pass on the offer and hire somebody with more direct experience instead!  If it was a question of hiring somebody to do your landscaping who had years of experience working in a plant nursery, however, you might give it a go — since the person could bring some specialized knowledge (i.e. selecting and caring for plants) to the party that most people wouldn’t be able to offer.  There’s a far more direct “transferability” of skills and experience in this scenario.

So wean yourself off the notion that your natural strengths are going to be all it takes to set you apart and serve as your ticket to that great new career avenue.  Rarely does this turn out to be the case, since most jobs (especially ones compatible with the cost of living in Puget Sound) require more specialized ingredients in the candidates who successfully pursue them.  And if you still can’t quite get a handle on the exact skills you have to offer, or who else might value them, you can always consider going out and acquiring some brand-new qualifications that are in hot demand, as discussed in newsletters past!