Difference Between Skills and Abilities

Vicki Mann

Posted 10/10/2022
by Vicki Mann

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Difference Between Skills and Abilities

Difference Between Skills and Abilities

We often think of skills and abilities as interchangeable, and whilst the two words may seem similar in nature, there are actually some important differences between the two. Understanding the difference between a skill and ability can make a world of difference when it comes to hiring the right candidate or where you need to upskill your current employees.  

Think about it: if you were to select a random group of people and ask them to sing, they would most likely have the ability to be able to sing, but it's an entirely different thing to be able to sing well. This is an easy way to think about the differences between skills and abilities, but how do we define these in the workplace? This blog will take a deep dive into the main differences between a skill and ability by defining what they both are and how to look out for them in the workplace. We will also talk about knowledge, and how this fits into the equation. 

What are skills?

A skill can be defined as an action or task that can be learned, developed, and carried out with a degree of proficiency. This includes both physical skills, such as sports or playing a musical instrument, as well as mental skills, like problem-solving or critical thinking. In most cases, skills are developed through practice and repetition. We can break down skills into even easier segments to help us understand. Employers often separate skills into two different categories: soft skills and hard skills. The difference between these two types of skills is that soft skills are general skills that relate to many aspects of one’s career or life, whereas hard skills are pieces of knowledge that are learned and acquired over time and are more specific to the workplace. Categorising skills helps employers to identify specific types of different skills that are related to a job. 

Soft skills

Unlike hard skills, soft skills do not depend on an individual's knowledge. The Collins English Dictionary defines soft skills as ‘desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge’. This is very important, as it clearly points out that soft skills do not require ‘acquired knowledge’ like the way an individual would develop their hard skills.  Sometimes, soft skills can be made up of a combination of other skills. For example, teamwork is a soft skill essential to the success of any business, and teamwork itself is a combination of verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Non-verbal communication skills include skills such as eye contact and body language, while verbal communication skills are more about the words you say.  More examples of soft skills include:

  • Time management
  • Adaptability
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem solving

Hard skills

Hard skills are less general than soft skills and are often more specific job-related aspects of knowledge. These are quantifiable skills that people develop through life experience such as school, work experience and training courses. For example, knowing how to use a specific type of software or tool is a hard skill. These are also sometimes referred to as technical skills because these skills have been learned, studied and applied. Other examples of hard skills include:

  • Marketing
  • Computer software
  • Analytical skills
  • Machine operation

What are abilities?

On the other hand, an ability is essentially one's capability or capacity to perform a certain task. An ability is something that we inherently have within us because of our genetics or our potential. This doesn’t mean that we are good at the activity. For example, you may have the ability or the capacity to run, but can you do it well? That's not to say an ability is not something that can't be developed or improved as they can naturally be developed through experiences. Examples of abilities in the workplace include: 

What's the difference between a skill and an ability?

Whether it's on job applications or in day-to-day life, the terms skill and ability are often used interchangeably. Whilst we can understand why this happens, there are some important distinctions between the two. The key difference between them is that an ability really refers to the capability an individual has to perform a certain action, whereas a skill is developed through learning. Skills are specific tools or techniques that you have learned in order for you to complete a task. Abilities, on the other hand, refer to your natural talents or strengths – something that comes easy for you and comes naturally. This is the case for both soft and technical skills, as an individual may choose to hone their personal skills such as adaptability, organisational skills or time management by undergoing training.  That's not to say that you cannot develop an ability too. Decision making, for example, is an ability that some people have more naturally than others, although you can improve your ability to make decisions. However, some abilities, such as hearing, cannot be improved and this is down to genetics, as we mentioned earlier. 

Why employers need to learn difference between a skill and an ability

Employers need to know the difference between skills and abilities because they use this information to make decisions about hiring, training, and development. If an employer knows that a job applicant has the ability to learn new skills quickly, they may be more likely to invest in their training and development.  Or, if an employer knows that a candidate has a specific skill that they need, they may be more likely to offer them a job or promotion. In either case, it's important for employers to understand skills and abilities so that they can make the best decisions for their business. Performing a skills gap analysis is an excellent way to discover what key skills are missing amongst your workforce. Learning should always be something that is not only encouraged but supported in the workplace, and this starts by identifying exactly what particular skills are missing.

What is knowledge?

So, where does knowledge fit into all of this? We've made mention of knowledge throughout this article as it links to having understanding of different skills. However, knowledge in something doesn't necessarily make you particularly skillful in that area. Knowledge can refer to the amount of information or insight into a particular area that can help an individual carry out a particular task and is closely linked to memory. For example, you may have read books about how to solve problems in a more effective way or how to develop better interpersonal skills. 

How Skillsarena can help

Knowing the difference between a skill and an ability can help inform hiring and promotion decisions as well as providing insights into the learning and development needs of a workforce.  Here at Skillsarena, we provide aptitude tests to help you identify the strongest candidates and the employees with the most potential. Our skills tests allow employers to accurately evaluate an individual's skills within a certain area. Choose one of our off-the-shelf skills tests or create your own bespoke tests to tailor them to the specific role.  Want to learn more about how skills tests can help you hire the right people? Get in touch with us today.

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