Using transferrable skills to identify new work

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.

In our work-centered culture, we often introduce ourselves and each other by our jobs. You’re more likely to hear, “Do you know Larry? He’s the guy with the plumbing business,” than, “He’s a six-footer who’s into gardening.” Even if the conversation were about gardening or tall people, Larry would still be introduced by his occupation.

This American quirk is mostly harmless but it does have ramifications. For instance, people who are out of the workforce and those who dislike their jobs are two groups who don’t fare well in this reference system. It feels awkward to be asked, “What do you do?” when you’re not proud of the answer.

A more serious consequence, at least to my mind, is the internalization of vocation as the primary way we define ourselves. This is precarious not only for those who lose the job – and thus the identification – but for those who feel out of step with the job they have.

The situation is only made worse if a job separation comes suddenly, perhaps for health reasons. When that happens, there’s a sense of being locked out of something core to one’s personality and identity. I’ve heard people describe it as an amputation.

While recovering from this psychic injury might take awhile, it’s not necessary to be completely “healed” before moving forward. In fact, delaying too long could be costly in terms of lost opportunities.

In last week’s column I wrote about two people who seem to be deeply identified with their work: A carpet expert I’ve seen in late night television ads for the store where he works, and a Big 10 football coach who resigned for health reasons. Both of these individuals proclaimed that their work was all they know or all they’ve done – an assertion I know to be wrong.

It might be true that each individual’s career has always been inside of a particular field. Even so, their responsibilities and knowledge undoubtedly grew as they moved from one role to another. Not only did they wear different hats at different points, but they expanded their skill sets. In essence, they worked at different jobs inside each position, accumulating skills that are used in a multitude of jobs in other fields.

The good news? Should they care to, each of these two could more easily transition to new careers than they might guess – as could anyone who feels tied to one particular career. It all begins with transferable skills, the building blocks of every occupation.

Let’s look at a Big 10 coach to model this concept. Suppose our coach has spent 25 years working up to a head coach position. First there were stints as an assistant at less prestigious schools, perhaps complemented by off-season work in skills camps. Eventually there was a call from a Big 10 school to be an assistant, or perhaps there was a head coach stint at a smaller school. By the time our person becomes head coach at a major university, he or she has been living the sport and the academic environment for decades.

Here are just a handful of the hats this person has been wearing over the years:

Educator, youth counselor, scheduling coordinator, recruiter, event planner, fundraiser, facilities person, vendor manager, ticket rep, keynote speaker, public relations strategist, equipment manager, transportation coordinator, media liaison, physical therapy coordinator … and we haven’t even started on roles and tasks related to working inside of a university (committees, budgets, etc.), much less the expertise related to the sport itself.

What about our carpet expert? While this list might not cover as many distinct areas, there would still be plenty of roles and tasks represented after a couple of decades spent rising through the ranks: customer service, estimating, crew leadership, product sourcing, pricing strategies, scheduling, staff training, warehousing, inventory management, store operations, etc.

As you can see, when you break the logjam presented by the “I’ve always been a…” mindset, it’s short work to realize how many different jobs you’ve actually been doing. Once you’ve made this analysis, the next steps tumble into place: Choose a handful of your favorite tasks or the ones you feel are the most marketable, then identify other arenas where the same tasks are conducted.

Having named other professions that use your skills, you’re in position to conduct informational interviews, to augment your training, or perhaps to just reach out and ask for work in the new field.

Isn’t that neat? Nearly everyone who is wed to a career path is actually performing parts of several different careers simultaneously. Recognizing this means you can weather a transition with less trauma while ensuring that your next work involves doing things you really enjoy.