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Are transferable skills more important than specialist expertise?

The role of formal project management methodologies is becoming increasingly important outside its traditional industries, namely IT, engineering and the public sector. As a consequence, many project professionals are now working across different industries throughout their career and, in order to do so successfully, a wider variety of skills is needed.

Very often, when recruiting a project manager, organisations are faced with the dilemma of choosing between a field specialist and an equally – or even more - experienced professional with cross-sector experience. Should transferable skills be prioritised over specialist expertise or vice versa?  Truth is, there is no right or wrong answer and, in many cases, it only depends on the nature and size of the project.

However, while the jury is still out on the comparative importance of these two skillsets, it is clear that, regardless of the sector, transferable skills play a determinant role in the career development of a project manager. Here are the key reasons why they do.

One skillset is not enough anymore.

Every project is different. Even within the same sector and the same organisation, projects can vary greatly depending on their size, nature, degree of complexity, stakeholders involved and objectives to be achieved. Because of all the elements involved, specialist expertise is often simply not enough. Managing a project entails much more than having technical knowledge, it requires a broader experience in a variety of specialist subjects, which makes it almost impossible to find a professional who has outstanding technical knowledge in all of them. As a result, project managers with solid management skills and extensive experience have more chances to lead the project team successfully and meet the project objectives.

Transferable skills help with a career change.

It goes without saying that in order to move from one sector or one role to another, it is essential to have transferable skillsets that can be effectively applied to multiple business scenarios. Having proven experience across different industries gives a more extensive expertise, especially when it comes to general project management elements such as risk management, planning and communication strategies as well as stakeholders management. Choosing a project manager with a cross-industry experience can also be a good way to introduce new best practices and methodologies that proved successful within other sectors.

Increase marketability.

As a consequence of the most recent economic crisis and the increasingly competitive labour market, it can be difficult to find a suitable role. Gaining relevant qualifications and developing transferable skills is key in order to develop a strong professional profile that attracts the attention of potential employers. What makes a CV more marketable is the ability to demonstrate a portfolio of skillsets and an extensive experience that can translate into value added to the project team or more widely to the whole organisation.


Find out more about starting / developing a career in project management

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  1. David Lynch
    David Lynch 01 September 2015, 03:20 PM

    Great posts but I been here many times as in my experience there seems to be a  seven or so year cycle as to if specific industry skills are "in" or transferable and generalist Project/Programme skills are what the market wants. Don't ask me why but that is how it has appeared to me over the last 20+ years. I can though only really speak about the technology based industries and markets; maybe other industries are different and don't have this apparent cycle. All my best. D.

  2. Valentina Lorenzon
    Valentina Lorenzon 17 September 2015, 11:56 AM

    I agree with you, David. There definitely is a cyclical trend and, in my experience, it seems to depend on the specific sector/industry. And that's exactly why, I think, it is important to build different sets of core skills through a continuous professional development. Best, V

  3. Valentina Lorenzon
    Valentina Lorenzon 17 September 2015, 11:59 AM

    It's always good to hear about successful examples of a sector change. Hopefully, the transition will become easier in the future . Best, V