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2014-05-11 14:00:00 +0100 by Sarah Kerr


Information about transferable skills can be found in recruitment and careers pages, university literature and company websites, but what are ‘transferable skills’ and is moving from one industry sector to another, really that easy? We look at what employers are currently looking for and whether migration and industry skills gaps are encouraging companies to be more flexible. 

Allen & York Australia is a search and selection recruitment consultancy, with specialist expertise across; Environment & Sustainability, Health & Safety, Energy & Power, Mining & Resources and Finance & Professional Services; with over 20 years of experience we are often approached by professionals outside our markets looking to transfer into these industries. We see huge potential in transferable skills and would like to encourage more lateral movement, as we believe employers would benefit by embracing a wider talent base.  

Transferable skills include the soft-skills that are acquired through professional or private activities. They range from Leadership to Communication skills and there have been a number of studies carried out to assess their importance in the workplace.  Most notable is the Australian Government’s research culminating in the Employability Skills Framework which identifies eight key transferable skills, which employers said were important to them in the workplace;

1.    Communication (including numeracy)
2.    Teamwork
3.    Problem solving
4.    Self management
5.    Planning and organising
6.    Technology
7.    Lifelong learning
8.    Initiative and enterprise.  

Consultation with employers shows these skills were deemed to be valuable in the workplace and should be considered in a changing and competitive economy; “The [Employability Framework] Committee drew attention to changes in the skill demands of industry and of rapid change in the Australian economy. It noted that “the most successful forms of work organisation are those which encourage people to be multi-skilled, creative and adaptable”. 

The report goes on to state that; “the ability to continue learning and acquiring new or higher level skills will be fundamental” and because of changing technologies and economic circumstances, they argued that; “the emphasis of our training system has to be both on the acquisition of the specific skills for the job/trade and on flexibility” and that flexibility “requires a strong grounding in generic, transferable skills” (The Employability Skills for Australian Industry: Literature Review and Framework Development Report pub.2002)

Our Consultants at Allen & York Australia have first-hand experience of successful cross-industry recruitment. We believe behavioural characteristics such as attitude, creativity, adaptability, intelligence, ethics, as well as a willingness to learn and execute, are critical to any hire and can make the difference between an average candidate and someone who is outstanding. “The ability to lead and inspire a group of people are skills which can be transplanted from one sector to another and can be as important as industry experience”, comments Christopher Ouizeman, MD Allen & York Australia.

Specific roles that lend themselves to transferring from one industry to another are Project Management and Business Development, in which you can bring previous managerial and commercial skills to the fore and develop your industry knowledge on the job.  We see this encouraged by companies at a junior and entry level all the time.  Mining giants Xstrata, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, in a quest to address the engineering and mining skills gap have developed award winning graduate schemes whereby people commencing their professional journey from all academic backgrounds are encouraged to enter the mining industry, utilising their transferable skills and with the view that they will learn the finer points of the industry whilst at the company.  

Why doesn’t this happen higher up the career ladder?

“Many of our clients refer to the risks associated with employing candidates from outside their sectors. When asked to elaborate on the definition of this risk, employers often point to the downtime associated with learning about the sector. Whist we acknowledge that there may be a short period of education required, this is often done on the job and seldom results in significant loss of productivity.” Christopher Ouizeman.  He goes to say; “Some clients point to lack of industry networks, but the reality is that networks are only as good as their ability to be leveraged and are entirely reliant upon the ability to build relationships. If someone has this rare and very sought after trait, networks will be easily built and will likely flourish as a result of excellent leverage which is an enduring benefit”. 

In the UK, a newly formed association; Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO) is at the forefront of looking for solutions for the current and future oil and gas talent shortage. They state that; “In the short-term, a lack of transition training to capture transferable skills is the biggest human resources issue for the industry”.

OPITO have devised ‘The Transition Training Programme’ (TTP), a fast-track course which takes workers with relevant, practical experience and key technical skills and upskills them to plug vital gaps within the oil and gas industry.  Their first Transition Training Programme in 2013 was aimed at mechanical technicians and targets; “skilled workers with relevant practical experience of other industries that are potentially facing redundancy or reduced opportunities”.   

By developing their existing skills to suit the oil and gas industry, the programme has the potential to provide a trained, quality assured, competent workforce in a relatively short space of time.  Long term they are also engaging thousands of schools to develop joint educational strategies that encourage the up-take of key science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.  However, it is interesting to see that it is not a programme which is limited to entry-level candidates and that opportunities for up-skilling are also available to the wider workforce.  

Similarly, the reported skills shortage in the Australian mining industry has been made more acute with the onset of another minerals boom, highlighted this month by the announcement that BHP Billiton increased profits by 83%, to US$8.1bn, despite the reported slow down in mining investments.  Last March The Minerals Council of Australia has predicted the need for an additional 86,000 mining professionals and skilled mine workers by 2020. So if these figures are still true, where are these workers going to come from?  Surely, the OPITO model is a good one and it is worth investing in transferable skills programmes to look outside the immediate industry in order to replenish the workforce.

The environmental, sustainability and energy sectors are innovative & growing markets, which attract professionals from a variety of related industries.  However, at Allen & York our experience has shown that in most cases, despite the best of intentions, employers are actually not as receptive to skills transferability as they claim.

As an example, faced with two candidates, one who comes from within a clients sector and the other from outside of the clients sector but, with higher levels of transferrable skills, employers will often select candidates from within their own sector, despite the obvious advantages of the "lateral" candidate possessing better transferrable skills. 

“At the commencement of the recruitment process, when scoping out the requirements of the vacancy, our recruitment consultants will almost always agree a candidate from outside the employers sector with transferrable skills would be attractive. However at the end of the recruitment process, faced with the decision of who to appoint, clients will justify their reasons for not going with a "lateral hire" and appoint someone from within their own sector” Christopher Ouizeman.

This is not unique to Australia, our UK colleagues have similar experience; “Employers are more willing in theory than practice to go outside the “standard” direct route.  There is often more willingness to consider this at a more junior level, so graduates and entry level applicants looking to change horse will find it easier than more experienced professionals.” Paul Gosling, MD Allen & York UK & Europe.

Every day, we hear about the difficulty of getting skilled staff, while puzzling about the rising number of unemployed Australians and under-employed people. Migration of key talent especially across the Financial and IT markets is flagged as an ongoing problem, as well as predictions of a pending technical skills gap upon the retirement of the baby-boomers.  Maybe it’s time for employers to look beyond a “perfect fit” from each new recruit, and focus more on employing talented professionals with wider sector experience who can grow into the role and bring new skills to the company. 

“We have a minority of clients who are exceptional in their ability to see potential and who actually value skills transferability. These clients see that the diversity in ideas, behaviours and operating styles, can actually enhance their operations as they take the best of everyone’s backgrounds and meld them into an optimal culture. These clients understand that industry knowledge can be learned and is therefore not a barrier to employment.” Christopher Ouizeman.

Allen & York Australia consultants, as with all recruiters, have a duty of care to their employer clients and their candidates. As service providers, we must conform to client requests and fully deliver to their requirements. Similarly we must ensure candidates are properly aligned to vacancies to optimise their career outcomes as well as our clients required outcomes. To this end we believe that it is our role to present a solid short list of candidates, all of whom we believe could excel in the role, in some cases, irrespective of background. 

In such situations, where possible we ensure a counterpoint exists and we clearly articulate the logic of our recommendations in the context of client requirements and overall desired objectives. We see talent slipping through an overly restrictive net and we believe that with a little imagination this trend could be reversed, enabling companies to grow and benefit from professionals outside their narrow industry base.

Despite the above mentioned reticence of many employers to be innovative in their approach to employing candidates from outside their sector, Allen & York has a strong record placing so called left-of-field candidates successfully into a number of forward-thinking organisations.

In summary, the experience of our international network of consultants confirms that despite the best of intentions, employers prefer to appoint people from within their own industries believing these individuals to be lower risk.  That said, those that take the “risk” are often rewarded for their courage. Our advice to all employers is to consider what are mandatory qualifications and then hire on; 1) attitude, 2) behaviour, 3) values and 4) cultural fit for many other elements can be learned and developed over time. These four elements will drive performance and lead to sustainable outcomes.  

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