Employer Resources Professional Development

What is a skill? Types of skills and how to develop them

Skill often takes center stage for employers. However, the term often seems to have different meanings or appears to refer to different attributes.  

To find a succinct definition of skill, we need to contrast it with knowledge. Knowledge represents theoretical information and facts, and skills involve using that knowledge to take action in the real world. In other words, skills enable you to perform tasks and solve problems effectively. Employers value specific skill sets that include both technical abilities as well as personal traits that ensure success in the workplace.  

It’s important to understand the various types of skills and know how to develop technical (hard) skills and personal (soft) skills. Here is an in-depth look at different skill types and ways to effectively develop them.  

Skills vs. talents vs. abilities 

In addition to the distinction between skills and knowledge, it’s also essential to understand the difference between skills, talent and ability. 

Talents are innate or naturally developed abilities. You are either born with them or develop them naturally without focused skill development efforts. On the other hand, ability is a broader term. It can refer to skills you develop through training and practice or innate talent that you have or develop naturally.  

Jobs require specific abilities. Employers may not be aware whether these abilities are learned skills or natural talents. If you have a natural aptitude in a certain area, you may be able to develop skills in it more quickly than others. However, most jobs require training to improve performance or help employees prepare for new opportunities. 

Imagine you want to become a professional chef. You have a natural talent for combining flavors to make delicious food. You have developed this talent naturally just by cooking for yourself at home. However, making a few dishes well is not enough to succeed as a professional chef. You need formal training to add skills. These might include food preparation techniques, menu planning skills and the ability to manage other kitchen staff.  

Most careers require some level of skill development to turn natural talent into professional success.  

The two types of skills taxonomy

You can break down skills in different ways. One of the most popular distinctions in the workplace is between hard skills and soft skills. These terms cover both technical skills and personal traits.  

Every career requires both hard and soft skills. It is important to understand how to identify and develop both types of ability.  

Hard skills  

Hard skills are also known as technical skills or job-specific skills. They are teachable, and you can prove your abilities with an exam or demonstration. 

Assessing hard skills is not a subjective process. You can either perform a task successfully, or you cannot. An example of a hard skill would be the ability to use a computer language to create a mobile app.  

In most cases, hard skills require training. For instance, you can have talent in math, but you need to study to learn the techniques and processes necessary to become an accountant.  

Here are five examples of hard skills. 

  • Creating a computer program using a specific language 
  • Operating a computer numerical control machine in a factory 
  • Repairing an automobile in an auto repair garage 
  • Building a mathematical model to make a sales forecast 
  • Estimating the cost of a construction project using measurements and materials prices 

In all these examples, you need to follow a specific set of steps to complete the job. Even for people with specific talents, training is necessary to gain this technical knowledge.  

Soft skills 

Soft skills are personal attributes that you use in the workplace. These abilities are necessary for workplace interactions, and they support the use of hard skills.  

Common soft skills include communication, leadership and relationship building. These abilities are harder to quantify than hard skills, but they’re essential for building partnerships and managing or collaborating with other professionals.  

Here are some examples of soft skills commonly required in the workplace:  

  • Communicating effectively with peers to collaborate on a project 
  • Adapting to new requirements on a project 
  • Delegating tasks to other employees and explaining the requirements for completion 
  • Solving problems with available resources 
  • Building relationships with suppliers to get the best prices  

Though you may learn techniques to support soft skills, you ultimately develop them through experiences in the classroom, the workplace or during other life experiences.  

The three types of acquired skills 

There are other ways to categorize skills. Hard and soft skills focus on the nature and application of skills. However, other distinctions are more focused on acquiring skills. As you prepare for a career, you will want to define skills by the way you obtain them.  

Students, those preparing for a career, and employees seeking career advancement can break skills down into personal traits, transferable skills and knowledge-based abilities. With these categories, you can find the best ways to develop or obtain each ability needed for a career.  

Transferable skills 

Transferable skills, also known as universal skills, are abilities you can apply across different job roles and industries. While hard and soft skills are often specific to certain job functions, transferable skills transcend job boundaries.  

Here are five examples of transferable skills:  

  • Communication skills enhance collaboration and problem-solving in any role. 
  • Leadership skills are valuable in various contexts, from leading a small team to making company-wide policies. 
  • Problem-solving skills are valuable in any position, and they can help prepare you for opportunities within a company. 
  • Adaptability allows you to change approaches and incorporate new concepts quickly. This skill is valuable in any industry that experiences changes.  
  • Time management is essential for productivity and is valuable in any position where you have to operate under deadline pressures. 

As you may have noticed, most transferable skills are soft skills.  

Personal traits and attitudes 

Personal traits and attitudes refer to an individual’s inherent characteristics and the way they affect actions and interactions. These traits impact how you approach tasks, challenges and relationships. 

Here are some examples.  

  • Optimism leads to a positive outlook in most circumstances. It can help with resilience in the face of setbacks and give you the ability to inspire others. 
  • Conscientiousness leads to attention to detail, organization and a strong work ethic. It inspires you to take responsibility for completing tasks effectively.  
  • Empathy gives you the heightened ability to understand and connect with others. It allows you to develop positive working relationships with other employees.  
  • Open-mindedness encourages flexibility, creativity and a willingness to consider diverse perspectives. 
  • Resilience reflects one’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks, learn from failures and maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity. 
Knowledge-based skills 

Knowledge-based skills develop through education, training or experience. These abilities come from your understanding of a particular field or specific techniques for completing tasks.  

Here are examples of knowledge-based skills.  

  • Google Ads requires an understanding of marketing principles, including target audience identification, campaign objectives and budget allocation. 
  • DEIB labor law  requires an understanding of employment laws and regulations related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). This includes knowledge of federal, state, and local laws, as well as the ability to interpret and apply these laws to specific situations. 
  • Scrum product ownership requires a thorough understanding of Scrum principles, values and practices. 
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) requires an understanding of how search engines work, how to optimize websites and how to create high-quality content that will attract and engage visitors.  

How to develop skills 

Developing skills is a continuous process necessary for your professional growth. Company managers can facilitate this growth to ensure employees have the skills to excel at work and further their careers.  

Companies can conduct a skills gap analysis to decide what type of programs to offer to employees. 

Here are options for developing skills inside and outside of the workplace:

  • On-the-job training pairs employees with mentors — such as through the SBA’s Mentor-Protégé program — or experienced colleagues who can teach specific skills during regular work operations. This approach allows you to learn skills and apply them immediately in a practical setting.  
  • Formal education can also help develop skills. This could include degree programs, but you can also consider professional development courses, certificate programs and micro-credentials.  
  • Continuous feedback and assessment allow employees to acknowledge their strengths and identify areas where skill improvement is needed. Regular performance reviews can help focus professional development efforts and assess the effectiveness of these efforts.  
  • Self-directed learning helps employees with independent skills development. The company can provide access to resources, such as online courses or educational materials. These allow employees to choose the skills they want to learn and the ability to pursue professional growth without cost barriers.  
  • Upskilling initiatives can help employees grow professionally. These initiatives may include cross-training, exposure to new tools and technologies and opportunities to attend conferences or workshops related to trends or techniques. 

Professional development programs can also be implemented to provide employees with opportunities to acquire new skills. These opportunities often consist of workshops, courses and seminars inside the office or at industry conferences or training centers. 

These skills development options allow companies to take full advantage of their employees’ existing abilities while training them in new areas. 

The importance of upskilling 

Upskilling initiatives provide employees with the opportunities to enhance their careers and adapt to new trends and techniques in their field. In most companies, workers have developed a variety of soft and hard skills. Upskilling allows companies to continue taking advantage of these abilities while adding new ones.