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What's the difference between skills and competencies?

By: Hays recruitment expert on June 4th, 2020

When searching for your next job you’ll regularly come across the terms “skills” and “competencies”. It might seem that these two words are being used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. If you’re looking for a new job or are keen to understand how you can advance in your career, it’s important that you recognize the differences between the two. Grasping the differences will help you to:

  • Review job descriptions more effectively, so that you can more accurately understand which skills and competencies the employer is looking for, and why
  • Add skills and competencies to your resume in a way that resonates with the employer
  • Explain what your skills and competencies are in a job interview, and directly relate them to the job you’re applying for
  • Understand your skills gaps and which competencies you may need to build on in order to advance your career, both now and in the future

How do skills and competencies differ?

Skills are the specific learned abilities that you need to perform a certain job well. Skills depend on the specific role and can range from handling accounts and coding to welding or writing tenders. However, there is a distinction to be made between hard skills and soft skills. A hard skill is a technical and quantifiable skill that a professional may demonstrate through their specific qualifications and professional experiences. On the other hand, a soft skill is a non-technical skill that focuses on interpersonal traits. An example of a hard skill would be computer programming or proficiency in a foreign language, whereas a soft skill would be time management or verbal communication.

Competencies are a person’s knowledge and behaviours that lead them to be successful in a job. Examples of competencies include the improvement of business processes, strategic planning and data-based decisions. Competencies effectively explain how an individual’s behaviours bring about the desired results in their role. As with skills, there are various types of competencies – including core competencies, which are those that any successful employee requires to rise through an organization. In the words of marketer Aja Davis Isble, “…a core competency is something that is core to you and how you work – so it is something that could potentially set you apart from every other candidate.”

How do skills and competencies factor into your job search?

Now it’s time to apply what we’ve learned so far about skills and competencies to each stage of your job search – and beyond.

Job descriptions

Most job descriptions can be broadly considered to be either skills-based or competency-based. They differ in that skills-based job descriptions typically consist of the job title, responsibilities and skills required, whereas competency-based job descriptions tend to take a more holistic approach by also considering the behaviours that will lead to success in the job.

Skills-based job descriptions

To go into more detail, a skills-based job description is the more ‘traditional’ approach and therefore the one you may be most familiar with. It’s the kind of job description that outlines the responsibilities of a position by listing the tasks to be completed and the skills required to do so. It specifically focuses on the candidate’s qualifications and experience, without considering their merits as a whole person.

For example, a skills-based job description might state a preference for you to have a BA in accounting or finance, at least three years of accounting experience and strong proficiency in Xero or Excel.

Competency-based job descriptions

As for competency-based job descriptions, their ‘holistic’ approach is based on the premise that past behaviour predicts future performance. Such job descriptions make a connection between the skills, knowledge and behaviour of the candidate – in other words, how they apply their skills and knowledge, instead of merely what skills and knowledge they possess. This type of job description provides more context than a skills-based one, which helps to explain why it is more common in today’s world of work. It is a more inclusive way of communicating what the candidate needs to do the job well.

For example, a competency-based job description might also include the need for analytical thinking, teamwork and a client focus. Such job descriptions emphasize the qualities of the worker as well as the skills they require and tasks they’ll take on.

The Resume

Next, you’ll need to update your resume in a way that lets both your skills and competencies shine through. Keep in mind that when you’re applying for any role, you must first carefully review the job description. This will enable you to pick out the relevant opportunities to truthfully mirror the skills and competencies in the job description with those on your resume. So first, determine whether the job description is skills or competency-based, or a mixture of the two, so that you can tailor your resume to what the reader is looking for.

Identify the skills and competencies you possess that are required to perform the specific job you are applying for. One idea is to list these skills at the side of your resume. You should also incorporate your relevant skills and competencies throughout the work experience section of your resume – for example, in the case of a previous finance role, competencies such as conflict management, change management and strategic agility may be relevant in addition to your technical and soft skills. Additionally, it is essential to communicate the quantifiable results you were able to deliver because of your competencies and skills.

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The job interview

When it comes time for a job interview, you need to present both your relevant skills and competencies to the interviewer. Along with asking specific questions to determine your technical and soft skills, expect to be asked competency-based interview questions.

Remember, competency-based questions aim to test for specific attributes. So, you might be asked to explain how you resolved a tricky work situation in the past or how you previously worked alongside other team members to achieve good results.

In your interview you should mention your constant learning mindset – something that is increasingly vital in today’s era of digital change. Demonstrate your willingness to learn and gain new skills and competencies to add to your existing ones.

How to develop your career by upskilling your skills and competencies

Understanding the difference between skills and competencies isn’t just important during the job search process. This understanding can also help you to better understand which areas you need to build on, and develop to further your career. One way you can do this is by regularly conducting a personal skills and competency gap analysis.

Whether you conduct this analysis on your own or with the support of your manager, it will involve looking at your job aspirations now and in five to 10 years’ time. You’ll need to consider what skills and competencies you need to learn in order to become a suitable candidate and reach these goals. The key is to be honest with yourself – after all, you can’t hope to succeed in the future without self-awareness and constant self-reflection.

Various online tools exist that may greatly help you to assess your current skills and competencies. We’ve linked to some of the more popular ones below:

Understanding what your skill and competency gaps are will enable you to proactively upskill yourself in your own time. You can also ask for relevant stretch opportunities at work. You could make this the start of a habitual cycle of reflection, adopting a mindset of lifelong learning. And, if you are seeking a new job, remember that the job interview is a great place to find out if your potential employer will be able to support you in your personal development and upskilling in a truly meaningful way for you.

You need different skills and competencies at different stages of your career

It is also important to understand that at each stage of your career, different skills and competencies will be important for ensuring your success.

For instance, at the start of your you should focus on building your technical skills and expertise. As your career progresses, you are likely to move away from certain day-to-day tasks, and instead towards projects in other areas of the business. These later stages of your career are where such competencies such as the ability to influence, negotiate and strategize will need to be developed. But at the same time, you will also need to ensure you do not neglect the harder technical skills that you require to continue thriving in your profession.

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