What’s the difference between skills and competencies?

Nexford staff, featuring Dr Sheila Fournier-Bonilla
13.05.2019·3 min read

Competency: is it a buzzword? And how does it differ from a skill? Get the Nexford rundown

In this post we look at:

  • The difference between a skill and competency
  • How you can use both to your advantage
  • Why it matters to you
  • Competency vs skills: the benefits of each

Picture the scene. You’re preparing for a job interview. You open your laptop and write the list of competencies set out in the job description. You mentally tick them off the list, rehearsing what you’ll say and offering examples for each one.

Fast forward to the interview and something curious happens. You’re asked to list your top skills. For a moment, you’re thrown. You wonder if your interviewers want you to relay your competence, strengths, or skills.

This fictional scene is all too common, and something we try to clear up as early as possible at Nexford. Let’s start with some definitions.

What is a skill?

A learned power of doing something competently. Or a developed aptitude or ability, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Skills are specific learned activities. For example, playing the piano is a skill and so is running a digital masterclass.

What is a competency?

In many ways, competence is like competency: the ability to do something well or effectively. But there’s a notable difference. Competencies include proof points that you can do something. For example, you would say that an effective leader had “proved she has the competency to run a team.”

What is a skills vs competency example?

Skills are learned abilities, whereas competencies are skills and knowledge plus behaviors. Competencies allow you to demonstrate that you can perform a skill at all.

Why does the difference matter?

Employers care about both terms. Competencies are aligned with industry requirements. HR professionals and managers slice and dice competencies on different levels to recruit, and further, measure the performance of employees. With the rise of remote working, it’s critical that hiring managers pinpoint exactly what they’re looking for from the get-go. Moreover, they must make them consistent so that employees can see how their skills, behaviors, and abilities align with others in the organization.

You won’t just need to demonstrate your skills, behaviors and knowledge in your resume. No! You’ll need to display them in Skype interviews, uploaded films, presentations and assessments. Whatever hiring process you go through, you’ll need to separate out your skills from your competencies to land the job you want.

An example: communication

In a digital world where US adults’ total media usage is nearly 12 hours a day, on average, communication skills are essential for capturing people’s attention and conveying a message. Thanks to the likes of TED Talks and YouTube, storytelling tops the professional agenda. Instead of just listing facts, compelling storytellers use both soft and hard data. So, is effective communication, story and fact, a skill? Yes. In which case, what is the competency? Remember, the skills-plus-behavior-plus-knowledge formula. At Nexford, we trace one-to-six levels of communication and collaboration competencies. For example, at level one, we expect learners to identify the core message and intended purpose of the communication in verbal, visual, written, and oral formats. At the highest level, we ask them to present messages in multiple communication modalities and contexts.

How competencies benefit you

Think of competencies as your path to progression. When well-structured competencies span entire organizations and reflect industry standards, you have a concrete way to show how you match up. With a clear benchmark, you’re able to move into different departments, teams, and even other firms.

Competencies are more detailed than skills and take your knowledge and abilities into account. It’s competencies, not skills, that will determine whether you have the right behaviors to succeed in a job.

Dig deeper into our academic model: read more about skills

About the Author

Nexford staff, featuring Dr Sheila Fournier-Bonilla

Dr Sheila Fournier-Bonilla is Nexford’s chief academic officer. She has more than two decades of academic leadership experience serving institutions of higher education across the US, Latin America and Europe.

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