The Difference Between Skills & Abilities

30 October 2021
8 minute
The Difference Between Skills & Abilities

If you were to stop someone in the street and ask, “do you know how to draw” the answer most people would likely give is, “yes”. Most (if not all) people know how to draw basic objects and know that the starting point for drawing is a pencil and a piece of paper. A lot of people will know how to use a pencil to get a more defined line or add shadows and then even fewer would be able to draw lifelike images from a photo or from a real life model. 

This is another way of demonstrating the difference between skills and abilities - albeit a very simple way - and just how they differ. Whilst they are commonly used in an interchangeable way, they explain different processes that go on.

We are going to take a closer look at the difference between skills and abilities later in this guide but the key difference is a level of knowledge - and how it is practiced.

In this guide we are going to take a look at these important differences, why employers must understand the difference between skills and abilities, develop a greater understanding of skills and a greater understanding of abilities.

Why employers must understand the difference between skills and abilities

Understanding skills, abilities and knowledge is fundamental in the determination of staff training and development needs. One of the key aspects to retaining your staff is how you develop them and that starts by understanding what they are lacking in order to get better at their job.

For example, a skills gap analysis is one of the most important things that you can do to assess your employees skills and see what is lacking and this is something that should not only be done when they join the workforce but throughout their time at the business. Developing old skills and learning new skills is an ongoing process and one that will reap rewards over many many years.

Being able to recognise where there are skills and ability gaps will help employers harness strengths and align staff with relevant roles and equally, avoid placing them in roles to which they are not suited. This causes more widespread issues than can be foreseen over a period of time, including, general low staff morale and poor leadership appraisal.

What are skills?

A skill is something that embodies the knowledge, competency and ability to perform a task. They are developed through life and work experience and can also be learned through study. In many cases, skills are something which will be easier to access for some people than others as it can apply to things like dexterity, physical abilities and intelligence.

That old saying “you can’t be good at everything” is another way of saying “you can’t be highly skilled at everything.” It’s very true when you come to think of it.

Skills in employment refers more to the fact that you have the competencies to fulfil a specific or particular role. For example, Steve is a baker. He has a knowledge of ingredients and recipes whilst his abilities being able to carefully measure out ingredients and bake with precision. His skills are in decorating cakes and creating unique designs for birthday cakes in particular. This is a combination of skills and abilities.

There are also a variety of different skills by simple classification that also need to be addressed. These include:

  • Life skills

These are skills which can be transferred job to job, life events and situations.

  • Leadership skills

What are the key skills that make a great leader and what can be developed for leadership purposes.

  • Organisational skills

Having the ability to understand both inputs and outputs and what the corresponding outcomes will be are key organisational skills.

Skills examples

What skills can an employee/candidate add to the workplace? Can they perform the job correctly? These are all questions that need to be answered when analysing skills in their different environments. For example:

Job skills

  • Technical skills

This may be computer proficiency or software knowledge.

  • Verbal communication skills

The use of language to convey information.

  • Written communication skills

The use of skills to convey a message in written form.

  • Presentation skills

Delivering and presenting effective and engaging presentations to a variety of audiences.

  • Organisational skills

How to be systematic and efficient. 

Leadership skills

  • Critical thinking

The conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

  • Delegation skills

The transfer of responsibility from manager to subordinate and ensuring that work/process is carried out and entrusted to the right people.

  • Interpersonal skills

The ability to communicate and interact with other people.

  • Managerial skills

Deploying the best skilled people to do the best job for the organisation and their teams.

  • Budgeting capability

The process of managing and tracking income and expenses.

Life skills

  • Parenting

The experience, knowledge and intuition to be a loving parent.

  • Empathy

The ability to recognise emotions and share perspectives with other people.

  • Motivation

The actions you take to achieve your desired outcomes.

  • Stress management

Understanding what are triggers and using techniques like meditation, time-management and therapy to manage the stress effectively.

  • Home organisation

Knowing how to keep a clean and organised home.

  • Life organisation

How to use your  time, energy, strength, mental capacity, physical space efficiently to achieve the desired outcome.

What are abilities?

Abilities are commonly considered to be a special talent or skill to do something. You will hear this of prodigious talents a lot, “they had a natural ability”. Ability is usually something you are born with and have been genetically blessed with. For example, a great swimmer like Michael Phelps had a huge genetic advantage over his competitors whilst he honed his skills with daily, hard practice to become the best swimmer the Olympics has ever seen.

It is the example above that sometimes muddies the water between skills and abilities. In essence they are related, they are designed to provide a specific function but they are different and it does matter. 

Skills are what you can develop and harness. Ability is having something from birth that is harder to develop. In the example above, Phelps was genetically blessed with his height and feet size (perfect for a swimmer) but also more subtle and important things like his torso measurement, lung capacity and lactic acid threshold. His skills were to improve his strokes, his timing, his turns, his racecraft. 

Another way of looking at ability is that, what an ability means is that you have the capacity to do something. A skill on the other hand is being able to do something well. I.e. Michael is a natural born swimmer, but he became a champion by working at it. 

Examples of ability

Here are some examples of ability that apply to the above definitions: 

  • Research

How we find information, collect, analyse and interpret it. 

  • Problem solving

How we handle challenges and find solutions in difficult moments. 

  • Art

How we create art in any form. From photography to drawing or sculpting.

  • Craft

How we use our manual abilities to create something from very little or sometimes nothing.

  • Public speaking

The talent of effectively addressing a room - some people naturally have this from the first day of their lives.

  • Negotiation

How to effectively communicate between two parties that have differing views to see a common ground.

Skills vs abilities

We have seen what both an ability and a skill is and practical examples earlier in the guide. Here are some other ways to interpret their differences. 

  • Abilities are natural or innate while skills are learned or acquired

E.g. You’re tall and athletic with good hand to eye coordination but you have the skills to play basketball.

  • An ability is defined as the capability to do something - while skill can be defined as the ability to do something well.

E.g. The ability to run - and the skill to run fast or a long distance.

  • Ability simply refers to the potential of a person to do something. On the other hand, skill refers to the potential possessed by an individual to do something exceptionally well.

E.g. You’re a good artist but you practice a specific form of art that yields results beyond what your natural ability has been able to provide up to that point. 

Employers can gain a lot from understanding this clear difference. With skills, they can be learned and used to identify gaps that training and mentoring can help to develop and resolve whilst abilities are innate. A candidate or an employee may have abilities that can be tapped into and used, for example, presentation abilities or negotiation that can come in handy. Therefore the benefits in being able to determine a person’s innate abilities which can be developed into valuable skills are plentiful.

Importantly, an employee can learn about their employees and candidates by focusing on their abilities and helping them to develop their skills. 

Assess skills and abilities with Thomas

Understanding skills, abilities and knowledge is fundamental in the determination of staff training and development needs. Being able to recognise where there are skills and ability gaps will help employers harness strengths and align staff with relevant roles and equally, avoid placing them in roles to which they are not suited.

With skills, they can be developed and using a skills gap analysis is a way to do this whilst an ability is innate. To find out more about skills assessments, what they measure and how they are used in the workplace, make sure to check out our blog.

The Thomas Aptitude assessment can provide a clear distinction of a candidate’s abilities and skills. Measuring an individual's aptitude in 5 key areas Reasoning, Perceptual Speed, Number Speed & Accuracy, Word Meaning and Spatial Visualisation), the assessment gives an insight into whether they have the capacity to adapt to new challenges, and if they would be suited to drive change through your organisation.

If you would like the find out more, please speak to one of our team.

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