Why Transferable Skills Are the Unsung Hero of Hiring

December 3, 2015


Here’s a discussion we’ve been having recently that’s relevant both to candidates looking for work and companies in our network: the issue of transferable skills and the job search.

One of the biggest ways that the internet revolution and the rise of social media has changed the world of careers is in the use of social media sourcing. More than ever, recruiters and hiring managers are looking to social media channels to find candidates for open positions. LinkedIn, Twitter, even Facebook (but especially the first) are now major sources of opportunity when candidates are looking for jobs and companies are looking to hire. To that end, most candidates are aware of the need to have a complete, accurate LinkedIn profile – and as recruiters who engage in social media sourcing as part of our practice, we’ve been champions of this piece of advice for years. Recruiters and hiring managers using social media to augment their talent sourcing are able to use keyword searches to find candidates with highly specific backgrounds, so candidates are well-advised to include as many relevant keywords as possible.

But there’s something that goes along with this shift in hiring, and that’s a perception that social media sourcing can deliver the exact right candidate down to a staggering level of specificity, on demand. This means finding a candidate not just with the right experience, but with the exact right industry, the right degree, the right location, the right software experience, the right compensation, the right favourite flavour of ice cream, you get the idea. It means disregarding candidates who might fit most of the job criteria out of a belief that, because of social media’s power, the hiring manager will be able to find a candidate with all of the right criteria. The needle in the haystack, so to speak. 

Make no mistake, social media sourcing has allowed recruiters and hiring managers to be faster and more specific in finding talent.

But it doesn’t mean that it’s possible to find every needle in every haystack, and it doesn’t mean that the needle in a haystack that a hiring manager finds – matching all the keywords they’re looking for – is the best, or even the most appropriate, candidate for a job.

We’re of the opinion that, as part of any technological change in hiring, something is gained and something is lost. With the advent of social media, hiring managers have gained the ability to source highly-specific talent. But what has become somewhat lost in that ever-expanding search for the so-called “purple squirrel” (a candidate so improbably specific that they scarcely exist) is the importance of transferable skills, and companies’ willingness to hire people who might not fit every specific written job criterion, but who have the strong soft skills, ambition, and business acumen that will allow them to thrive in the role.

A few years ago, when a new role was created, a company was willing to hire ambitious, skilled individuals from within (think hiring out of the mailroom). But more often today, companies are taking to social media to find someone external who hits all the notes of the written job description. It means that candidates with strong transferrable skills are often left out in the cold.

Here’s an example from Supply Chain, which is our area of recruitment specialty: Planning. This discipline is divided into the roles of Demand Planning and Supply Planning. Granted, these roles have somewhat different responsibilities: Supply Planners help plan an organization’s production and inventory, and Demand Planners help predict demand through an assessment of sales, seasonal trends and economic forecasts. But despite the difference in functions, the skills are fairly similar. Both Demand and Supply Planning require – above all else — very strong analytical skills, and the ability to turn data into actionable information. We speak with candidates all the time who transition from Supply Planning to Demand Planning roles within companies, and vise versa. Yet when many companies go to hire for either of these functions, they want to source candidates only who have Supply Planning or only who have Demand Planning, respectively, even though the requisite skills are transferable.

The importance of considering transferable skills is particularly important in Supply Chain, which (as we discussed last week) favours a diversity of experience, while also being a talent market where high-achieving candidates are in higher demand than ever. So by hewing close to exact keywords and disregarding transferable skills, companies cost themselves the best talent.

As we’ve preached before, candidates are more than bundles of keywords. But what can you do if you’re a candidate, trying to navigate this new world of hiring and make yourself as visible to hiring managers as possible? One strategy is to use as many keywords as possible – without being dishonest about your background – to make sure you show up in searches. Another is to emphasize the cross-functional nature of your experience, and your holistic understanding of an entire category of business. For our part Argentus, as well as the most strategic companies, are happy to stumble onto anyone in the latter category.

Do you have opinions about this issue, either from the candidate or client side? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments! logo_icon4

Thanks to Argentus recruiter Ivan Larcombe for his insights about this topic. 

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  1. Alema Misilo

    Great sample for transferable skills is any Administrative job/ worker. It usually takes only to learn new terminology, company procedures and a little bit of the new indystrie how-to. Therefore transfer from telecommunication to hospitality for instance is so easy :).

  2. Grant Grinnell

    Another pitfall of only hiring people who exactly fit the job opening is the loss of ambition. It is common that the only candidates considered for a role are those who’ve been doing exactly that job for 7+ years. What sort of “ambitious” people have been doing the same thing for almost a decade and are willing to take on a new job that offers no change at all?
    Organizations who want ambitious and entrepreneurial people should be more aware of those who currently occupy a lower rung on the ladder but are ready to step up to a new challenge.

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