Skills Or Competencies...What's The Difference?

By JDXpert - April 03, 2016

Everyone has a different idea of what qualifies a candidate for a job.  The head of IT may feel that a candidate with experience in a particular program is most suited for the position while the Production Manager believes a candidate that works well with others is the most qualified.  But what really matters is if the job applicant can meet the needs of the entire organization.  So what do you do to make sure candidates are truly qualified for the position and have a good chance at success?  Start with the job description.

The New Job Description
A good job description can provide applicants with an accurate reflection of the work they are expected to perform and recruiters and interviewers with a guide to how each candidate should be evaluated.  Traditionally, job descriptions used skills, duties, and responsibilities to define the job; however, today things are changing.  As companies downsize, upsize, or rightsize, they are placing more emphasis on the worker, not just the work.  It is more important than ever to have a flexible and multi-skilled workforce.  No longer can employers depend solely on an employee’s skill level, but must also consider what characteristics and strengths they possess that can bring more value to the company.

Skills vs. Competencies….What’s the Difference?
So, what is the difference between skills and competencies?  Well, let’s look at communication as an example.  A person can become a good presenter through practice, learning from others, and education but in order to be a strong communicator, one must rely on a combination of skills PLUS behavior and knowledge.  A person can learn how to be a good presenter but only a strong communicator has advanced language skills, the knowledge of diverse cultures, and behaves patiently when communicating.  In short, skills are specific learned activities like mopping the floor, using a computer, and stocking merchandise, while competencies are skills + knowledge  + behavior like problem solving, communication, or professionalism.  

Why Aren’t More Companies Competency Based?
First of all, it can be time consuming.  Skills are tangible and much easier to define while competencies are often broad and require more critical analysis. It is much easier to bullet point the skills of a job than it is to determine how the job contributes to the entire organization.   Also, we’re just not used to it.  As stated previously, traditional job descriptions largely focus on skills, education and experience. To switch gears after decades of treating job descriptions as a list of skills and requirements takes a lot of effort. Reteaching your team, and even yourself, to focus on the bigger picture takes time and practices.  And lastly, we generally don't think of competencies as a facet of the job description but rather as a part of the performance review. However, waiting to evaluate competencies during the performance process might be too late. Including and evaluating competencies early in the recruitment and training processes will help you hire the right people and cultivate a more capable team. 

It must be said that skills are still a very important part of a job description and can give managers, employees, and candidates a good idea of what is expected of them on a daily basis.  But companies need to consider the numerous benefits of competency-based job descriptions.  Competencies give employees and candidates a clearer picture of performance expectations and what they need to succeed in the job.  They also give you a more efficient way to evaluate job applicants and decrease the chance you’ll hire the wrong person for the job.  Regardless of what model you ultimately choose for your job descriptions, it is important to note that there is a difference between skills and competencies and a better understanding of the difference may lead to a clearer, more defined job description.    



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