The Differences Between Skills and Abilities: A Comparison
Updated 18 September 2023
When reviewing applications for a new position, candidates may provide information on their skills and abilities. Understanding the difference between the two can help you review CVs effectively. Both of these concepts can be necessary to perform job functions successfully and advance in a profession. In this article, we define skills and abilities, list their key differences, explain how these concepts differ from knowledge and discuss whether you should provide professional development opportunities for employees seeking to improve their skills.
What are skills?
Skills are behaviours or competencies that people can learn. Skills allow people to perform specific actions and execute desired results within their pre-established time and energy expectations. Employees can improve their skills over time with practice and consistency. On CVs, people might separate their skills into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. The primary difference between the two is how individuals develop them. Here's how to distinguish between different skill types:
Hard skills refer to technical knowledge you can gain through specific training, life experience or education. Different professions require particular hard skills. For example, cashiers in the food service or retail industries may need to learn how to use a Point of Sale (POS) system. Other examples of hard skills required in various industries and roles include:
Fluency in a specific language
Storage system management
Programming languages, such as C++, Python or Java
Marketing campaign management
User interface design
In contrast, soft skills are more often interpersonal or personality-focused traits. As a result, these skills can often transfer to various industries and professions. You can also work to grow and develop soft skills, but you usually gain them through experience and habits rather than formal training. Some people are more pre-disposed to particular skills than others. Here are some common examples of soft skills:
What are abilities?
An ability refers to the capacity to perform a skill. You can develop and improve some abilities through training or exercises, while others are inalterable or come naturally to you. Abilities are the means you possess that allow you to execute tasks. Some abilities are also skills, but ability refers to your capacity to perform the skill rather than the skill itself. For example, driving is a skill, but the capacity to drive is an ability. To be capable of driving, drivers need to be able to operate a vehicle, see the road and understand the laws and rules associated with driving. Here are some other examples of abilities:
Lifting heavy objects
Working on a team
Related: What Is Aptitude?
What is the difference between skills and abilities?
Even though some people use these terms interchangeably, there are key differences between skills and abilities:
How they're achieved
While you can achieve mastery of both skills and abilities, you typically develop skills through experience and training. For example, an employee who wants to build their skills as a software developer might take a course on programming languages, practice building a website or read books about software development. Meanwhile, soft skills like communication and public speaking can also improve through practice and personal development opportunities and training.
You can develop some abilities as well. For example, if you want to run a marathon, you might work to build your strength, endurance and stamina. However, some abilities are difficult to improve, such as physical impairments that you can't control or change.
What to look for in a candidate
Employers often look for a combination of skills and abilities. Some jobs have physical ability requirements, such as being able to lift heavy objects, listen to customers and commute to work. You might list ability requirements in your job descriptions that let candidates know if the job has specific physical or ability-related demands. When reviewing a CV, you don't need a candidate to list all their abilities, but it's important to talk to them about limitations they may have so you can devise alternative approaches that meet their abilities.
Employers also look for combinations of hard skills and soft skills, and certain professions require them. For example, if you post a job opening for a financial analyst, you may need a candidate who understands how to build reports and develop spreadsheets. Candidates who list their hard and soft skills on their CVs make it easier for employers to understand their strengths.
Professional development opportunities
Another key area where skills and abilities differ is in how your employees can develop them in their professions. Many employers provide on-the-job training, continuing education opportunities and workshops to help employees develop their skills. If you work in a particular industry, your employees likely develop skills every day. Working in certain environments and with specific programmes, technologies and tools can help them develop their skills. They may list skills from previous job experiences on their CV to alert you to their knowledge and areas of expertise.
Employees can develop some abilities once they have the knowledge needed to execute specific tasks. Opportunities to build abilities are often less obvious than those to develop skills, however. Still, you can provide educational courses and workshops that help employees improve in multiple aspects and aid them in their work and professional development.
Knowledge vs. skills vs. abilities
Another important distinction to make is between knowledge, skills and abilities. Job applicants often list a combination of the three to inform prospective employers of their qualifications. This tactic can help employers screen candidates and hire the most suitable applicants. However, knowledge differs from skills and abilities. Knowledge refers to the information you have that helps you perform tasks. Some examples of knowledge are:
Laws and regulations: Understanding relevant laws and regulations can be very important in certain professions. For example, businesses need to understand how to file taxes. Knowledge of federal requirements can help ensure companies act under applicable laws.
Business processes: Knowledge of business processes can be essential to job function. For example, if a business pays its bills with an accounts payable department, employees need to know to get invoices to that department to receive payment.
Mechanical configurations: Knowledge of machines and how they work can be important in technical industries. Similarly, knowledge of safety procedures can help employees maintain safe working environments.
Why do employers need to know the difference?
Knowing the difference between skills and abilities can help you as you review CVs and conduct the interviewing process. Asking candidates about their skills and abilities can give you valuable information about their capabilities and expertise. It's also important to understand these differences so you can support your employees' continued professional development. By identifying a skill or ability they lack, employers can work with their team members to encourage their advancements in those areas.
You can offer further training for employees whose skills aren't as strong as you'd like them to be. If an employee lacks the ability to do something, you can work with them to find alternative ways to perform a task or work towards an effective solution. It can be harder to train abilities because they're often inherent to the employee and difficult to alter quickly. However, putting people with relevant abilities in positions that suit them can help them develop and grow in their careers.
Should you help employees develop abilities and skills?
It's important to develop abilities and skills because it helps employees be as successful as possible in their roles. Offering classes, training and opportunities for personal and professional development can expand employees' knowledge, vary their skill sets and increase their existing knowledge, skills and abilities. It's important for employees to be enthusiastic about growth and development as well. These opportunities can help them keep their jobs dynamic and continuously learn new things that aid them in their careers.
For example, asking analysts to remember specific formulas and spreadsheet functions can help them maximise efficiency and improve their processes. Working on written communication can be important for employees who interact via email with clients or stakeholders. Proper grammar and email etiquette can benefit both their personal development and your business' reputation. If an employee has an inherent ability to do something, then you can work with them to develop relevant skills.
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