How to explain your transferable skills on your resume

The question isn’t where were you working, it’s what can you do that an employer needs.


A member of Ladders Signature Program, which was called the Job Search Consultant Program in its early form, recently landed an exciting new job that — on paper — wasn’t exactly a perfect match for his background.

As a successful commercial banker, he had expertise in a wide variety of financial instruments. When the economy began to shift, he knew he’d be better suited in a different niche of financial services. To get there took an aggressive personal branding campaign on his part as he emphasized his skills with a specific financial instrument key to the market segment he wanted.

Although he wished not to be identified, his success story contains valuable insights into the job search and promoting transferable skills.

Lydia Whitney is the director of curriculum and instruction at Winning STEP, a company that mentors people through difficult life transitions: everything from going to college to getting a divorce. Lately, there’s been a lot of mentorship required for those in high-end careers.

Because the economy is changing so rapidly, she said, people are looking to make moves now more than they used to, and they’re banking on their transferable skills — whether they realize it or not.

“The first thing you should do before you look for a new job is assess yourself,” Whitney said. “People need to say, ‘This is what I did, but what else could I do?’ ”

Too often, job seekers get hung up on their work history and limit their prospects for the future. Like the banker, Whitney agrees that job seekers should customize their resumes and cover letters to each particular job with a heavy emphasis on the particular skills set that is being sought.

“In this economy, nobody cares about where you were working,” she said. “They care about ‘What can you do that I need?’ ”

That question should be answered directly through the cover letter, your very first communications with a company, said Lisa Panarello, founder and CEO of Careers Advance, a professional training and coaching agency.

“That cover letter is a big piece that people don’t utilize well,” Panarello said.

In sales, it could be a matter of promoting the deals you’ve closed that pertain to telecommunications — even if you were selling broader business solutions. In communications, you might have experience with public relations — even if you were a journalist.

Employers “have to understand how it transfers,” Panarello said. “People don’t look to the past. They look to the future … but your past is the track record that proves your future.”

She said the key is to cite examples from your career that show not only the ability to perform a certain niche but also how you can learn new skills. “My job was X, and they threw Y at me; and I had to learn it quickly. Here’s how I did it,” Panarello offered as an example. “Tactical behavior and situational examples would do the trick.”

Even in the advanced and specialized world of financial services, the approach is the same.

“If a job involves derivatives plus X, Y and Z, show how you know X, Y and Z, and explain how you can learn derivatives,” she said. “If you’re 100 percent qualified, you’re overqualified.”