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Getting Smart About Skills Transfer Could Solve the Skills Gap

Two plumbers working together in a workshop.

​A poor understanding of how job skills transfer among occupations—especially from occupations in decline to in-demand fields—is one of the biggest reasons for the nation's skills gap. But employers and job seekers can identify similar skills for different jobs with tools that help recruiters expand their searches for qualified applicants and help workers move across occupations and industries.

"Most organizations haven't quantified the skills they're seeking, so if I haven't articulated what I'm looking for, it becomes harder for me to look at a skill someone may have used in a different industry and see how that translates to the job I'm trying to fill," said Mike Knapp, CEO and co-founder of SkillSmart, a job placement platform that connects employers, job seekers and educational partners to help close skills gaps. "Added to that, people haven't quantified their own skills from previous jobs, so even if I knew what I'm looking for, how would I know that person had those skills?"

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network (O*NET) is one place to start. O*NET is a continually updated database containing hundreds of distinguishing characteristics for almost 1,000 jobs across the U.S. economy. The information includes:

  • The knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to perform each job.
  • Occupational interests and work styles associated with each job.
  • Tasks and activities that make up job duties within each occupation.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How can a skills-based inventory be used for strategic planning?]

"O*NET can be very useful for talent acquisition," said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. "I use it myself when searching for research assistants. My team will get together and decide what skills we need in order to complete a project. We go to O*NET to help us craft the job description because it provides the knowledge, skills and abilities one would use in that job."

It's also a great tool for determining skills overlap, she said. O*NET identifies similar required skills among different occupations, so people considering a career change can identify new opportunities and employers can feel more secure in widening their search parameters.

"You can line two occupations up and compare them for shared competencies," Smith said. "Even if someone has trained for occupation A, they may have 90 percent of the competencies for occupation B."

A 2017 New York Times review of the database showed how much overlap there is between seemingly dissimilar occupations. Service industry jobs, for example, require social skills and experience working with customers—abilities which also apply to sales jobs. The skills of tractor-trailer truck drivers are most aligned with jobs like rail yard and locomotive engineers and crane operators. Not surprisingly, payroll specialists' skills match up with tax preparers, accountants, court clerks and legal secretaries. The article relates how a man laid off from oil production work couldn't find a stable new job working in oil and gas. He was eventually hired by aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin for an advanced manufacturing job after a 16-week retraining course leveraged the mechanical aptitude and other skills he already had.

Work in Progress

But there are drawbacks to the O*NET database, according to experts. Knapp pointed out that the information—based on the government's Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes, last updated in 2010—is out of date, and also doesn't reflect how any particular employer defines the skills that make up their jobs. It is scheduled to be updated in 2018.

"The SOC codes are behind," Smith agreed. "Every job is included in the database, but some will not have their own classification. For example, app programmers are included under the classification for software programmers. Cybersecurity professionals are subsumed under information security analysts." If an employer wanted a breakdown of competencies for an app programmer, the skills for software programmers and other jobs under that classification would be included as well, she explained.

In addition, the tool can't produce customized results for organizations looking to hire for specific skills. "Being an additive database, you end up with a compendium of all skills associated with a particular occupation, and not necessarily what an employer would be seeking to hire in any particular locality," Knapp said.

SkillSmart takes a more tailored approach to match workers with employers in need, he explained. "Our sense was to go out and work with employers to see what they were hiring for at any given point in time and build an index of skills back that way."

The idea is that skills for any particular job change over time as technology changes, and employers seeking to hire for the same occupation, even within the same industry, could be looking for slightly different things.

The problem is tellingly expressed by the example of a large hospital system in Maryland with a nursing shortage, Knapp said. "The nursing shortage is not unusual. But a university that is closely connected to that hospital trains nurses. The system doesn't hire those nurses because they are not trained on what the hospital actually needs."

SkillSmart breaks job seekers' experience down into skills, and then assesses and designates a proficiency level for each applicant based on the skills an employer has identified. Applicants remain in the local talent pool and can later be pegged with the right set of skills for another job, even in an entirely different occupation. "We try not to leave any job seeker without a clear next step," Knapp said. "Job seekers should have a clear understanding of what skills are in demand. And if they need additional education or training, they know precisely where to go."

That's because SkillSmart attempts to work with the local community—employers, educational institutions and workforce development programs—to develop learning opportunities to fill in skills gaps, highlighting another limitation of O*NET.

"While you have a clear idea that a certain skill is required for a particular job, the major shortcoming of O*NET is that it doesn't provide information on how to attain those skills," Smith said. "Without that, how can a curriculum be developed based on knowing a particular occupation uses certain skills? How can we develop a curriculum that translates that knowledge into learning a particular competency?"

Employers' Role

Smith added that employers should be partnering with community colleges and helping develop their curriculums, especially for technical occupations at the local level. "Since the recession began, employers have shirked their responsibility in investing in retraining or upskilling workers with the required skills to remain current," she said.

Meanwhile, employers typically hire based on official credentials—a college degree or previous job title—rather than assessing the skills an applicant has developed, said Jennifer Carpenter, global head of recruiting for Accenture, a global management consulting and professional services company headquartered in Dublin.

"To remain competitive in a rapidly changing world of work, employers need to introduce far greater flexibility into hiring for skills needed not only for today but also for tomorrow," she said.

Eighty-five percent of 10,000 workers across 10 countries surveyed by Accenture in 2017 said that they are ready to invest their free time over the next six months to learn a new set of skills to remain relevant in their work. "By seeing people as learners, employers can reimagine how and what they recruit for and discard the outdated paradigm that a credential equates to potential," she said.   

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