By Roger Jones
Can you put over your point of view effectively? Would you be able to explain a complex technical point to someone with only basic English skills? Have you any idea what to do if a colleague trips over and knocks himself out? Are you any good at figuring out financial reports? How would you react if you were asked to chair a meeting?
Many people starting out on their careers imagine that their qualifications are the things that count. Certainly, there is no denying that a good degree or diploma can open doors to prestigious jobs. But it is not knowledge alone that will help you along in your career - nor even the people you know!
Employers are looking not as much for bright young sparks, but for people who can function effectively in the workplace. The more you progress up the career ladder the more you discover that it is the little things that count. By little things I mean certain core skills which we often overlook but which apply to a wide range of situations and jobs. They are often referred to as transferable skills.
What are transferable skills?
While some of these skills can be taught, most are gained through experience. There are very few courses I can think of which deal with chairing meetings, making clients feel at home, writing letters and memos, inducting new staff, improving morale at the workplace or reacting to emergencies. But if you wish to make headway in your career, these are the skills that are well worth cultivating.
Transferable skills include such abilities as
* report writing
* giving presentations
* understanding financial matters
* using the telephone effectively
* handling an interview
* dealing with clients
* committee work
* problem solving
* working in a team
* operating office equipment
This may look like a very mixed bunch of activities, with trivial skills rubbing shoulders with important ones, yet they all have relevance. Being able to operate a photocopier can be just as crucial to ensure the smooth running of an organisation as preparing a budget.
Communication skills are particularly important. A lot of people fall down badly when it comes to communicating with other people. They give explanations but leave out essential details; they write reports which are badly structured and contain grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes; they adopt the wrong tone when addressing people because they fail to take into consideration their level of sophistication or competence.
How to Develop Transferable Skills
Fortunately some vocationally oriented courses have a strong practical component and deal with some of these skills. Business studies courses sometimes offer practice in negotiating or chairing meetings; some medical courses help would-be doctors to develop an appropriate bedside manner. But I never fail to be surprised at musicians fresh out of college who play music wonderfully but haven't a clue about how to address an audience - in words.
Alas, not everybody emerges from university or college equipped to take on the world. From now on you may have to take responsibility for your own development. You will find plenty of useful handbooks in your library, bookshop or on the internet which show you how to write acceptable letters, make effective speeches, advise and manage others.
Identify and Build On Your Skills
However, you probably have quite a number of useful skills already. You need to take note of these and seek to build on them. Then, having identified them you need to make other people aware of what you are capable of.
What skills? Well, as a student you had to write essays and dissertations, and so during the course of your studies you will have developed research skills, analytical ability and presentational skills - as well as persistence. All have a place in the world of work.
You will also have acquired certain skills outside the lecture room and laboratory. If you have been a member of a sports team you should know what it takes to be a team player. If you have been on the organising committee for a student event or a rag week, you will have useful organisational skills. Have you worked on a student newspaper? If so, you will have learned how to get news stories and work to deadlines.
If you have had a vacation job in a pub, shop or holiday camp, even if the experience was horrendous, you will have gained valuable experience of what is known as customer care. Former Boy Scouts and Girl Guides will have acquired all manner of skills from First Aid to putting up tents. You never know when these abilities will come in handy.
Don't rest on your laurels, though. If you don't practise these skills, you will get rusty. If you don't currently have a chance to use them at work, why not explore other places where you could use them? Keep up the teamwork skills by joining a sports team; develop your speaking skills by joining a debating club. Voluntary organisations are always on the lookout for volunteers who can turn their hand to anything, and by helping others you could be improving your own credentials.
If you look through the job adverts on our website, just observe what proportion of each job description refers to knowledge and qualifications and how much is devoted to other skills. You could be in for a surprise. Your specialised knowledge may get you a position, but it is those important skills we tend to overlook which will enable you to do your job successfully.
You might also be interested in our new interactive CPD eGuide.