In order to succeed in life and put yourself in the best position possible to take advantage of available opportunities, you need to have the necessary skills. But what do we mean by ‘skills’, and how can you develop them and make the most of them?
In this article, we’ll aim to answer these questions.
What do we mean by ‘skills’?
Put simply, a skill is something we can do well. We learn skills through experience and we all have a different skillset.
All jobs require skills, whether that’s a chef being competent at filleting fish, a designer being able to produce an eye-catching brochure or a teacher who can deliver engaging lessons.
Some jobs call for skills in, for example, caring, driving, finance or practical work. These are ‘job-specific skills’, but there are also more general skills that are needed for many different careers. These are known as ‘transferable skills’ because, in theory, you can transfer them from one context to another. They may also be referred to as ‘employability skills’ or ‘soft’ skills, although there’s nothing soft about them; they enable us to function effectively both inside and outside the workplace.
Here are some examples of the transferable skills sought by employers and course providers. It’s a long list and it isn’t by any means comprehensive!
- Verbal communication – speaking clearly so that others can understand the points you make, listening, asking questions, and being aware of your body language and tone of voice
- Written communication – being able to produce clear reports, emails, records and so on, and use an appropriate format with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar
- Numeracy – working out calculations, such as percentage discounts and measurements
- Digital skills – e.g. using computers to communicate, produce documents, store data and find information
- Team working – being able to cooperate, compromise, support each other and make the best of each person’s strengths
- Decision-making – weighing up different options in order to make an informed choice
- Problem-solving – identifying an issue, establishing the cause, and using creativity and logic to come up with a solution
- Organisational skills – planning ahead, setting goals, scheduling tasks and coordinating resources
- Self-development – includes seeking opportunities to develop and learning from mistakes
- Time management – organising your time and prioritising tasks based on urgency and importance so that you work efficiently and meet deadlines
- Adaptability – being able to change your approach depending on the circumstances
- Initiative – thinking for ourselves and taking responsibility
- Leadership – influencing, guiding and motivating others; can also involve delegating work and managing conflict
- Attention to detail – working methodically and accurately
- Concentration – being able to focus on the job in hand
You may also come across the term ‘aptitudes’ – these are things that come naturally to us so are a bit different from skills, which can be learned, but the terms are often used interchangeably and the distinction isn’t clear-cut.
Examples of what we could consider to be aptitudes include being honest, analytical, reliable, self-motivated, positive (a ‘can do’ attitude), empathetic and resilient (being able to cope with difficult situations and bounce back from setbacks).
How can I learn and develop my skills?
From a young age we are taught how to read, write and use arithmetic. These basics are built upon as we go through education. Reaching a certain standard in maths and English is often seen as evidence of numerical ability and communication skills. This is why so many jobs, apprenticeships and courses specify good GCSE/National grades in these subjects. Your general education will develop all sorts of other skills too, but you can also take advantage of other opportunities.
Experience in the workplace
Any experience in the world of work – whether weekend employment, a holiday job, a work experience placement or internship – will give you the chance to learn new skills. It will expose you to new situations and all sorts of people. You will learn by observing others and having a go at things yourself.
All sorts of hobbies, interests and activities – whether to do with sport, travel, first aid, music, drama, the environment or crafts, for example – will give you the opportunity to develop as a person and learn certain skills. Joining an organisation such as Guides or Rangers or Scouts, a cadet force (Army Cadets, Air Cadets or Sea Cadets) or a youth group would allow you to experience a range of activities. You may also get the chance to take part in an initiative, such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, National Citizen Service or National Saturday Club. Once again, these will help develop your skills.
Not only does volunteering give you the chance to help others or contribute to a cause, you will develop your skills and improve your confidence.
Positions of responsibility
Putting yourself in a position where you can represent or influence others will develop leadership and other skills. You could be elected to a club committee, act as student representative or take part in the British Youth Council programme.
Classroom-based and distance-learning courses are available in all sorts of subjects, but you can also teach yourself using apps, videos, podcasts, books and online learning platforms. There are courses specifically aimed at helping you enter the workplace.
For instance, in England, The Skills Toolkit offers free courses to allow you to learn new skills or change jobs, and in Northern Ireland Assured Skills Academies provide pre-employment skills training for those who are unemployed or who want to change their career, and Essential Skills courses are for those aged 16+ who want to improve their reading, writing, maths or ICT skills.
Why should I identify my skills?
There are two main reasons why it’s important to be aware of your skills.
Firstly, identifying the skills you have (and enjoy using) can help you establish what sort of career might suit you. When you look at careers information, think about whether you have the skills required, or whether you would be interested in developing the necessary skills in the future.
Secondly, when it comes to applying for opportunities the person or people who examine your application will be interested in what skills you have to offer, so you need to be able to articulate these. As we will see later, it’s all about matching your skills to the specific opportunity.
How can I identify my skills?
A good starting point is to go through the list of transferable skills given earlier in this article and tick your strengths. Also think about what motivates you. Which subjects do you enjoy the most? If you’re working, which tasks give you the most satisfaction?
Sometimes others see things in ourselves that we don’t, so ask people you trust what skills they think you are good at. They may tell you that you’re a great listener or that you’re brilliant at organising.
Another way to identify your skills and aptitudes is to make a list of some of the things you do or have done and then jot down the skills and aptitudes you have developed as a result. Here are a few examples…
- Repairing your bicycle – problem-solving, initiative, self-development
- Weekend job in a fruit and veg shop – verbal communication, numeracy, reliability
- Regularly checking in on an older neighbour – listening, empathy
- Playing in a sports team – self-motivation, teamwork
- Organising a sponsored event – organisational and time management skills, teamwork
- Being a class rep – communication, leadership
There are various tools to help you understand your skillset. Morrisby psychometric assessments allow you to learn more about yourself and identify possible careers. Also have a look at other online tools, such as the Skills Assessment/Health Check and Discover your skills and careers from the National Careers Service, the My World of Work - Skills Explorer and Careers Wales Career Match Quiz.
How can I match my skills to opportunities?
It’s not just having skills that matters, it’s how you present or ‘sell’ them when applying for jobs, training programmes or courses. You may not have experience in the same area of work, but remember that you will have transferable skills and the key is how you match these to the specific opportunity.
Job adverts and job descriptions/person specifications state the skills needed. In your CV/application, give examples of how you have used the skills required in various roles, activities or tasks you have performed. In this way you can tailor your application to the specific opportunity and you are much more likely to be successful.
When it comes to interviews, you are likely to be asked when you have used the various skills needed for the position. These may be presented as competency-based questions and one way of dealing with these is to use the STAR technique as follows:
Give me an example of when you’ve worked successfully in a team to achieve a goal.
- SITUATION – A local charity needed funds to keep a summer club for disabled children running. Some friends and I decided that we wanted to help.
- TASK – We got together and, after discussing various options, agreed that we would organise a fundraising party.
- ACTION – There was a lot of work to do so we allocated tasks to different people. My role was to work on the publicity. I made sure that the group was kept informed of my progress and brought ideas to the meetings so that, as a team, we could agree on poster design, a social media strategy and so on.
- RESULT – The party was a success; everyone had fun and we raised over £500.
If you are exploring opportunities more generally, don’t forget to mention your skills and how you’ve used them. You can do this in your CV and covering letter/email when applying on spec and also through social networking, such as on LinkedIn. Make sure that the skills most relevant to the opportunities you are seeking are prominent.
Some final words of advice…
Remember that you never stop learning and that certain skills – especially digital ones – will need updating on a regular basis. The more you practise a skill, the better you will get at it.
You can find out more about skills online, such as through the National Careers Service for England, Careers Wales and My World of Work in Scotland. If you are unsure about your next steps, however, there’s no substitute for professional careers advice, so try to speak with someone who can give you guidance.
Debbie Steel, March 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.