Transferable Skills Origin
April 1, 2008 7:28 PM   Subscribe

When did the concept of "transferable skills" become commonplace?

I believe that I encountered the term "transferable skills" just a few years ago. It seems like a remarkably meaningful and useful concept, and I see that a Google search returns tens of thousands of hits for the term "transferable skills".

I have to wonder if this is actually a relatively new term, perhaps due to the growth of a service industry that facilitates people who change careers. Or has this term been there for many years, and I've simply not been reading material where this term crops up? Honestly, I don't remember reading or hearing this term prior to about 2000.

Just so we are all on the same page, I'm talking about the concept whereby, say a guitarist would be able to "transfer his skills" to playing bass more easily than, say, a drummer would.
posted by Tube to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I first heard it used in Army recruitment, back when my then-boyfriend, now-husband, joined in the mid-80s. I remember that was when they were getting really big on how much the Army could "teach" you and set you on your way to the good life (oh to be young and naive again). Anyway, I remember the phrase "transferable skills" being used in conjunction with military skills (i.e. the training you received in the military would coincide with the skills that civilian employers were looking for).
posted by amyms at 8:06 PM on April 1, 2008

Interesting! Today my HR director told me that the buzzword "transferable skills" was listed on a pretty large percentage of the applications/resumes that we are getting for summer internships this year. She said that she first started noticing it sprinkled in applications for spring internships, but that the mention of that particular term had increased by a huge amount just in the first quarter of 2008.

I guess it's anecdotal, but it does seem like it's become more of a common term. I can tell you that it definitely predates 2000, though. I dug up one of my old cover letters I used as a recent grad in 1993, and it talks about the transferable skills from a field school class I took one summer.
posted by gemmy at 8:29 PM on April 1, 2008

I have been a freelance writer and consultant in careers education/facilitation for about 15 years. My earliest use of the term in materials would have been in June 1993, but I have no doubt that it was around before then.
posted by acoutu at 10:53 PM on April 1, 2008

It's been around, but as jargon I think it's become more common recently. It is directly relevant to the rise of the service economy and the multi-career career. I don't think this is an earth-shattering observation, though.

It does appear to be closely associated with What Color Is Your Parachute?, which was a very early book in advising people to think about how they can change jobs and thrive.
posted by dhartung at 11:52 PM on April 1, 2008

Working as a university teacher, I first encountered the term in the mid-1990s, at a time when the traditional arts and humanities subjects (English, history, etc) were being challenged by more career-oriented degree subjects (business studies, management studies, etc). Emphasis on 'transferable skills' was a way to reassure students that studying classical literature, or Renaissance drama, or seventeenth-century social history, would not put them at a disadvantage in the job market, because it provided them with valuable skills which would be attractive to employers and directly useful to them in their future careers.

At first I thought the idea of 'transferable skills' was a good one, but gradually I began to notice that a subtle change was taking place in the use of the term. It was increasingly assumed that the only reason for the existence of degree courses in English, history, classical studies, etc, was to equip students with transferable skills. It thus became a way for university administrators to measure one academic course against another, and to determine that modern history, say, was better than New Testament Greek because it offered a better (i.e. more marketable) set of skills. The next step, which was just coming in when I left the profession several years ago, was to require university departments to compile statistics on the starting salaries of their recent graduates, in order to provide a more objective measure of transferable skills.

The result of all this, I'm afraid, has been to make many academics deeply cynical about the whole idea of transferable skills. Mention the term to an academic and see what reaction you get: sarcastic laughter, probably, or perhaps just a weary sigh of resignation. Like so many other good ideas, it's become a cliché through over-use.
posted by verstegan at 4:10 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The concept of transferable skills has been an important part of Social Security disability adjudication since 1979 or so. It comes into play when a claimant's impairments prevent her from performing the work she's done in the past and it must be determined whether she can do other work. Obviously, workers with transferable skills can adjust to other work more easily than workers without. In my experience, it is difficult to identify truly transferable skills. The Social Security Administration has issued a ruling on the topic, if you're interested on its take on the subject.
posted by pasici at 4:32 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

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