In our experience, "Skills" and "Abilities" are terms used interchangeably, as if entirely synonymous. In both cases, they usually refer to something competence-based, whereby some people are inherently more competent in a specific area than others. These people are either referred to as being highly skilled or having high levels of ability in a particular domain, with both seemingly meaning the same thing.

However, in practice, there are key differences between skills and abilities, and in this article, we will unpack, outline, and evaluate these differences, along with their practical implications for the workplace.

skills based hiring
section one

What are abilities?

Abilities are best thought of as broad areas of competence, whereby levels of competence tend to vary from person to person. For example, a person's ability to read, write, drive, run, or solve problems are great examples of "abilities" in this sense. Some people simply have greater levels of these abilities than others, and a person's level of these abilities can change over time (to varying degrees).

Abilities are relatively intangible concepts, being particularly broad and general. However, because abilities are comparatively broad, they matter far more than any specific skill in isolation. Naturally, organisations would rather hire someone who has the broad ability to perform well in their role overall than someone who is only skilled in one narrow area. The former represents a commensurately high-performing employee, whereas the latter is a low-performing employee who can only perform one task well.

section two

What are skills?

Skills, however, are best described as specific facets of a broader ability, which collectively underpin that ability. For example, a person's ability to drive comprises a range of specific driving skills, including their speed management, hazard perception, speed control, and parking. As with abilities, a person's level of skill can vary considerably, and their overall level of skill can change over time.

Broad abilities are underpinned by a number of interrelated skills, which are likely to be highly correlated with one another. For example, with aptitude tests, people who score highly on verbal reasoning are also likely to perform well on numerical reasoning, inductive reasoning, or logical reasoning tests, etc. This is because these specific cognitive skills are merely facets of a larger ability, general cognitive ability. These inter-correlations highlight to us that these skills belong to a broader ability, helping us to outline the relationship between these concepts..

section three

How do we measure skills and abilities?

A key distinction between an ability and a skill is that abilities cannot be directly measured; they can only be inferred from skills. For example, evaluating a person's writing ability can only be achieved by grading a person's written work in line with specific skills, i.e., grammar, spelling, vocabulary, their writing flow, etc.

Even something as basic as one's ability to run can only be assessed by measuring the skill component, i.e., how quickly a person can run, how long they can run for, etc.

By the same token, the way a person improves their ability over time is by learning new skills and/or improving their existing skills. As you improve or expand upon these skills, by definition, your level of ability is increasing concurrently, as you simply have more competence in this broad area. This has important implications for learning and development, as it highlights the importance of identifying specific skills that underpin these abilities. You can't jump straight to improving abilities directly.

section four

Implications for the workplace

Increasingly, organisations are turning towards a skills-based approach for talent management. Rather than relying on experience and CV content to form the basis of selection decisions, organisations are looking to measure specific skills and use these data to screen candidates. From a practical perspective, this represents a considerable leap forward and is likely to improve the quality of hire significantly.

However, from a theoretical perspective, the term "ability-based hiring" would make more sense. Fundamentally, the ability to perform well in-role matters the most, and this ability is merely underpinned by specific skills. These skills, therefore, function mostly as indicators of ability, whereas the underlying ability is ultimately what matters most.

Although, ultimately, abilities are what organisations are principally interested in, skills are in fact the only tangible way of evaluating abilities, supporting the practice of skills-based hiring. Organisations are well-advised to identify, isolate, and evaluate candidates based on the skills required for the role, and use this as a proxy for overall ability.