What’s The Difference Between Skills And Competencies?

Nexford staff, featuring Dr Sheila Fournier-Bonilla
February 17, 2024 · 6 min read

Skills vs Competencies. How do they differ from each other? Get the Nexford rundown below!

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's the difference between skills and competencies?

Skills and competencies are related but have distinct differences.

A skill is a specific ability or expertise that is learned or acquired through training or experience. It can be developed and improved over time.

On the other hand, a competency is a combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities that enables someone to perform tasks or duties effectively. It encompasses a broader range of attributes and encompasses not only technical skills but also personal qualities and behaviors.

In the next sections, we will delve deeper into the definitions and examples of skills and competencies. 

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 which are applied to achieve a desired result. For example, playing the piano is a skill and so is running a digital masterclass. There are two main types of skills: Hard skills and soft skills

  • Hard skills are technical, and are learned abilities which are acquired and enhanced through education and experience. These include technical skills like data analysis, computer programming, marketing, copywriting, project management, etc.

  • Soft skills are behaviours, habits and traits, including interpersonal, communication and people skills, which can also be acquired and improved through education and experience. These include effective communication, teamwork, problem-solving, research, creativity, etc.

By taking an itinerary of skills that you have, you can figure out the skills gaps which you'll eventually need to bridge.

Learn how to develop the most in-demand skills for your future career!

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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.” To think about this in a simple way, competencies = skills + knowledge + ability.

There are also core competencies, which are essential skills and abilities that are necessary for an individual or organization to be successful in a particular industry or job. These competencies can include technical knowledge, problem-solving abilities, communication skills, and leadership qualities. They are often considered as fundamental to achieving success and competitive advantage, for both an organization and from an employee's standpoint. 

Examples of competencies include communication, problem-solving abilities, leadership qualities, technical expertise, and adaptability.

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.

How are skills and competencies similar?

Simply put, both skills and competencies can be acquired through training and experience.

How are skills and competencies different?

Whilst an employee may have a range of skills to perform his/her job well. They also have a range of competencies which determine how well they perform. Let's provide an example here, with a computer programmer. A programmer must possess the appropriate combination of skills, including hard skills and soft skills, to do their job. But lets say a significant issue was flagged up to this programmer suddenly, and they didn't do well under pressure, in this case the hard skill would not be sufficient enough to help them do their job. One would need to have developed a competency to think on their feet, and act quickly with the information they have in-front of them.

Why does the difference between competencies and skills 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.

Learn how to develop the most in-demand skills for your future career!

Discover how you can acquire the most in-demand skills with our free report, and open the doors to a successful career. 

Download the free report today!

Developing and improving skills and competences

Developing skills and competencies for the workplace is an important part of career success. To do this, it is important to identify areas where you need to improve and then take steps to develop those skills. This can include taking courses, classes, attending workshops, or even reading books related to the skill you want to develop. Companies may even encourage this through the development of a competency framework, which outlines the types of competencies which should be gained in order to work efficiently in a particular role.

Additionally, it is important to practice what you have learned in order to gain experience and confidence in your abilities. Finally, networking with other professionals in your field can help you stay up-to-date on industry trends and best practices. By taking these steps, you can ensure that you are well-equipped with the necessary skills and competencies for success in the workplace.

Conclusion

To conclude, there is a distinct difference between skills and competencies. Skills are specific abilities that an individual possesses, such as the ability to code or speak a foreign language.

On the other hand, competencies are a combination of skills, knowledge, and behaviors that enable someone to perform a task successfully. While skills can be learned and developed, competencies are more complex and often require a deeper understanding and application of various skills. 


Looking to Expand Your Skills & Transform Your Career?

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Want to take your career even further? Consider how a BBA or MBA can help you develop these skills and increase your earning potential.


Dig deeper into our academic model: read more about skills

About the author
Nexford staff, featuring Dr Sheila Fournier-Bonilla
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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