Transferable Skills – What About Transferable Behaviours?

Posted on March 17, 2014 by


Julie McDonald, Chartered Psychologist at The Urquhart Partnership explains why we need to start casting our skills net in different ways.

The following article was published in the Aberdeen Press & Journal on Friday 14th March 2014:

Julie McDonald

Julie McDonald

The term “skills shortage” trips off our tongues so often it is fast becoming a cliché. However it is the case that skills shortages are apparent throughout many industry sectors; particularly in the Oil & Gas sector.

In an effort to find employees with the years of relevant experience they would prefer, organisations may have tended to hire staff from their competitors and created a Talent merry- go-round! As older employees have retired and skilled staff have moved on to other roles; a skills shortage has been created where there is no longer a stream of competent, experienced people waiting in line for the roles which are on offer.

As part of the effort to reduce this shortage we hear about ‘transferable skills’; employing people with similar skill sets from other industries and training them on the industry-specifics of the role. Whilst this is a great way to widen the skills pool, I wonder if we can take this approach a step further by casting our net further still and focusing our search on finding people with transferable behaviours and attitudes rather focusing on transferable skills?

The Urquhart Partnership recently ran an Assessment Centre for an offshore position for a client in the Oil & Gas industry. The 8 candidates were a mix of people; some had many years of oil and gas experience and some had never worked in this sector before. If selection decisions had been made based solely on a CV and a technical interview; you can imagine which candidates might have been offered roles.

However, using a well-designed Assessment Centre as part of the selection process, meant that role-specific competencies and candidates’ behaviours could be evaluated. By combining a range of activities related to the role, together with ability and psychometric assessments, candidates were rigorously and fairly assessed.

As it turned out, the person who was the strongest candidate at the Assessment Centre was actually a person with no previous experience in Oil & Gas.

What distinguished this candidate, let’s call him Steven, from the others were his strong communication and interpersonal skills, his aptitude for problem solving, his behavioural style and motivation; in fact all the personal qualities which would help to make him excel in the role. The company offered him the role and with some specific technical training and coaching he is relishing the new challenge and is performing well.

The range of activities and exercises during the Assessment Centre helped to identify that, although Steven possessed no previous Oil & Gas experience, he was highly capable of picking up the technical skills the role required. Although some of the other candidates already possessed these skills and would have been able to manage the technical aspect of the new role, Steven had behavioural skills and attitudes which were critical to the role. Given that attitudes and behavioural style can be extremely difficult to change doesn’t it make sense to focus on selecting someone with the right behavioural style for the role in the first place?

Of course, there is always a risk when recruiting that a new employee might not work out. The truth is, human beings are highly complex and not always 100% predictable! You can never be absolutely guaranteed of any candidate’s future success. However the more robust the approach you take to assessment, the more you minimise the danger of making a poor selection decision. What was once a leap of faith can become a carefully calculated risk.

Naturally, there has to be a balance when recruiting; it wouldn’t be possible to employ only people with great behaviours but no technical experience. Companies require a mix of experience to succeed. They also need to have the time and capability to spend time coaching and training people from different backgrounds in the technical aspects of the job. However, it may equally no longer be feasible only to recruit those with years of experience – there simply don’t appear to be enough of these candidates to go around!

When focussing more on transferable behaviours than on transferable skills, it is important not only to select the right person, but to ensure follow-up when they begin their new role. Whilst they may not be able to hit the ground running at quite the speed of some of their more experienced colleagues; with the right planning, training and coaching to help them to make the transition, their technical skills can develop and they can have success in the new industry.

An additional benefit of selecting those from different industries or backgrounds is that they can have a fresh pair of eyes and new thoughts, ideas and experience to bring to the role – they are able to give back to the industry and to, once again, widen the pool of talent.