DISCUSS: Do transferrable skills mean anything?

DISCUSS: Do transferrable skills mean anything?

By Maxine Frances Roper 02/05/13

DISCUSS is a series in which IdeasTap members who are part of our Creative Space programme debate issues around the arts. Today Maxine Frances Roper wonders why it’s so difficult to convince employers that your creative skills are applicable to multiple sectors...

Ask anyone above 40 how they got into their career sector, and the typical answer is a Gallic shrug followed by, “I just fell in.”

For the more candid this is followed by, “On my first day I didn’t even know what [a major piece of industry knowledge] was!”  As someone who started working towards my career at 15 and is still price-comparing sandwiches at nearly 30, it’s hard not to want to throttle someone on £2,000 a week who doesn’t seem to know how or why it happened. But it says a lot about changes in the job market between Generations X and Y.

A decade or more ago, it wasn’t just easier to land a paid entry-level job, it was also easier to move sideways into a career in a similar industry. Someone with an English or humanities degree could comfortably switch between journalism, PR, marketing and publishing and be trusted to know what they were doing. Now employers are likely to want the finished product, even for very junior jobs and jobs that could be picked up on the fly by anyone with a brain and a web browser.

Some people’s expectations are comically specific. I’ve seen ads for 5p-a-word copywriting jobs demanding “specific experience of the Manchester hotel sector.” Clearly this is partly down to the economy. During uncertain times businesses want to be sure of what they’re getting and are less likely to take risks when hiring. It’s also down to the obsession with narrow qualifications, where degrees and training courses costing hundreds or thousands of pounds are seen as a benchmark.

Since joining Creative Space I’ve been trying to branch out from my features journalism background into copywriting and screenwriting. I’ve had a small, eclectic range of copywriting clients, and written my first broadcast-length script, a TV drama about a Lib Dem/Tory marriage. Some of the advice I’ve received, especially from other Creative Spacers, has been very helpful. Sadly this hasn’t always been the case. A snooty internet forum user – yes, that rare breed! – told me,“Don’t try and get noticed, unless you want to be noticed as someone who’s only done one thing.” I politely pointed out that writing professionally for 10 years doesn’t constitute “only one thing.” Of course it’s a different type of writing and different types have a distinctive style. But being able to switch tone is part of a writer’s skill, and being addressed like a Year 11 at a careers fair is dispiriting. 

Creative freelancers are constantly being told we need to diversify to survive. To do that, we need to end the idea that you need a certificate and a novel-length CV to prove you can tell one part of your anatomy from another. Early in my journalism career I interviewed a former BBC East Asia correspondent who told me he would rather recruit someone who was simply keen than someone who, as he put it, “knew everything there was to know about China.”  I can only hope many more decision-makers think like him.


The opinions expressed in DISCUSS do not necessarily represent those of IdeasTap.


What do you think? Should employers be more open to recruiting people from other sectors? Let us know, below!

Image by Sean Wong, on a Creative Commons license.

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