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“But I’ve never REALLY worked before”: Considering Transferable Skills

August 6, 2018 4:35 pm Published by Leave your thoughts


In every resume-writing class and workshop, one of the top things discussed is transferable skills. Everything you’ve done before – working, volunteering, playing in the school band – has given you something beyond the very concrete skills you utilized while participating in the day-to-day operations. However for first-time resume writers, this can be a hard thing to conceptualize. They’ve never reflected on what they learned from working as a lifeguard (outside of their swimming skills and CPR)—they’ve never really had to.

Especially as I work with students to get ready for their co-op experience, highly touted and valued as industry- and academically-related, this is exactly where I hear “Well, but I’ve never really worked before”. The student could have spent every afternoon, weekend, and summer in different positions, as well as the first few years of college working part-time, but they still feel like they’ve never “really worked” because it wasn’t industry-related. Food service and retail are common types of positions for younger people, leading to statements like, “I’m trying to be a doctor, and so my summer job at the water ice stand really doesn’t count.”

I’d like to bring attention and focus to these offhand comments and discussions, because sometimes we blow by them and miss the deeper connections that could be made. Additionally, society’s increasing focus on specialization has allowed both us and these students to miss some very critical skills, some of them very basic.

Instead of “Well, here’s how you sell it on your resume anyway…” We should be starting with things like (student answers as I’ve heard them follow in parentheses):

  • Well, did you show up on time every day? (Of course!)
  • Did you have to deal with anything complicated or time-consuming, like multiple orders simultaneously, large deliveries or catering orders, or a constant flow of customers? (Well, yeah)
  • Was anyone ever upset about their order or realized they didn’t like a flavor? (All the time!)
  • Did you ever mess up someone’s order? (Sure, but…)
  • How busy were you? How did you handle that?

“But” nothing. You worked. You learned valuable norms and skills that will be able to transfer to any employer you work for next.

Moving into open-ended and reflective questions after identifying these valuable skills allows students the opportunity to see their past experience in a different light and frame it as a success, not a tangential and meaningless activity.

These are things that aren’t often directly taught, but we ask students to articulate them anyway both on resumes and in interviews. These kinds of probing questions not only get students thinking about specific situations, which will be useful in an interview, but also help them to highlight strengths they didn’t realize were important in the workplace giving them more confidence that the co-op process will be more familiar to them than they initially realized.

Certainly then turning the conversation to the particular verbiage of resumes and employers is important. In fact, 4 out of the 5 top attributes that differentiate two candidates to employers, as reported to NACE in the Job Outlook for 2018, had to do with work experience and leadership (page 31). Seeing that candidates have an idea of what it means to be at work is critical to employers, more so than GPA and general extracurricular involvement. Additionally, over 80% of employers report looking for attributes like problem-solving skills, teamwork, and written communication skills on a candidate’s resume – all of which are encountered both inside and outside the classroom (Job Outlook 2018, page 30). The more powerful thing for us is building the connection for the student, and the confidence that provides them as they begin to pursue their first “industry-related experience” so that they can then continue to build these skills and reflect on future experiences.

The funny and wonderful thing about these instances is hearing all of our students return from their co-op experience and having them share their newly-learned wisdom with their classmates. When asked what the biggest thing they learned because of their co-ops, I rarely hear a specific or technical skill. Things like “Flexibility is key”, “Personalities matter much more than you might think”, and of course, “I wish I had realized in the beginning that this was just a job search. I wouldn’t have been nearly so overwhelmed and scared of it” are all very common pieces of feedback I hear from students who now have their coveted industry experience. Hopefully with more probing and more developmental and reflective questions, they can see those things before the process begins and recognize their transferable skills for the valuable assets that they are.

AUTHOR: Rachel Callahan, M.Ed. is the Senior Co-op Advisor for Operations & Assessment at Drexel University’s Steinbright Career Development Center in Philadelphia, PA. Rachel can be reached at

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