Back to Blog

Definition of the terms ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ in conjunction with ‘capability’ are vital to developing any framework against which a person can be assessed and matched to a particular position or career path. 

It’s likely the Talent Acquisition and Management and hiring process of tomorrow won’t look much like it does today at all. Skills-based hiring is on the rise, and employers are looking for candidates that have the right workplace competencies and types of job skills needed now and adapt to the changes that are coming in every single industry. 

But this is a challenge at best. Workplace skills assessments are often poorly constructed and quickly outdated. More important than specific skills, is the underlying competency of job candidates - their ability to find, absorb, and process new information and apply it. How do you test for or determine the competency of a candidate? 

The first step is to agree on what these terms mean. 

The Importance of Common Language

There is a problem when it comes to both education systems and HR: the terms ‘competency’, ‘skill’, and ‘capability’ are often used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. However, this is far from accurate. As Ryan Tracey, Learning Innovation Manager at Macquarie Group in Sydney, Australia states in his post, Roses are Red: “From the get-go, the difference between the terms may be most clearly distinguished when we consider a competency a task. It is something that is performed.” trade industries have already this figured out. 

  • Capability is one’s ability to do something, typically a talent. For example, you may have a gift for languages, which leads to…
  • Skills, such as the ability to speak Japanese or translate Mandarin for example.
  • Competencies are your level of expertise. To use our language example, I may be able to read Spanish and speak it passably. There is a huge difference between this layer of competence and being fluent enough to translate, carry on meaningful conversations, or even interact socially with a Spanish-only speaker.

To take this another step further, think of nearly any competency as a task instead: I may have the ability to learn computer code, but I may not have skills in a new and emerging language, so therefore I am not competent to program or create a website in that language. Because of my capability, I may at some point be able to become competent.

This is where term definitions and distinctions become important, even when creating a job description. “We want to make sure that what our learners are talking about matches up with what employers are looking for.” - Kelly Ryan Bailey, Director of Open Skills at Emsi says when discussing Rich Skills Descriptions (RSD), and creating “a more equitable, skills-driven labor market.”

To make any significant changes, we need to agree on the terms in those descriptions, including defining the desired skills and competencies themselves. Then we need to educate human resources personnel, job seekers, and educators alike on these definitions. The innovative programs at Western Governors University are already using skills mapping to benefit both students and those who will eventually hire them.

Let’s look a little deeper at the progression from ‘capability’ to ‘competency’.

Capability is Where Everything Starts

Music is a talent, as is the ability to grasp mathematical principles or learn new languages. The artist and the accountant begin with different capabilities, but undeveloped, those talents are just that: the potential to do something. “A capability is a personal attribute you draw upon to perform a task,” according to Tracey.

In other words, with the exception of a few child geniuses, the musician must take piano lessons just as the natural athlete must practice their sport. The skills they develop based on their talent will often be transferable. A musician may play several instruments - but they must learn each one.

By leaning into strengths they already possess, the skills they learn are transferable within their capability. Anyone can upskill and take their performance - whether music, athletic, or job performance - to another level based on their talent.

Contrariwise, if I possess no talent for mathematics, I can be trained to a certain extent to be an engineer or accountant, but I will only be able to go so far in those fields because my ability to upskill will be limited by my innate talents.

Therefore it is vital that learners determine their strengths, lean into them, and build skills-based on both capability and desire. But how do you build those skills?

Skill Building

So how do you move from capability to skill? There are a few different ways, primarily including education and practice. A skill can essentially be defined as the knowledge and practice required to perform a task. To use our language example, the capability to learn a new language can be applied by actively learning a language like Japanese. This involves learning new characters, alphabets, sounds, and other idioms and nuances.

The key is to reduce the friction in the movement from the capability to skill, therefore giving “unskilled” workers the ability to match their capabilities to skills, and those skills to needs in a given industry. This is both simpler and harder than it appears.

Capabilities are broad, and applicable across an organization. For example, “soft” skills like interpersonal communication and critical thinking are capabilities. These “soft” skills might better be described as “power skills” according to Josh Bersin and the Capability Academy. “Technology alone will not inoculate against disruption,” he states. “To thrive, companies will need employees who are prepared to address the challenges of the future together.”

To answer this need, Marcus Bowles and the Institute for Working Futures has developed a Human Capability Framework, one designed to help companies and educators focus on capabilities and potential over “hard skills” that may change over time.

What then, is competency?

Defining Competency

Competency is simply an answer to the question, “Can you do this?” The combination of capability and skills defines your level of competency or the answer to “How well can you do this?”

The simple question “Are you competent in website development?” will not be enough without deeper qualifiers. Think of the progression like this:

  • Capability - “Are you physically / mentally / emotionally capable of performing this task?”
  • Skill - “Do you have the knowledge and / or education to perform this task?”
  • Competency - “What level of expertise do you have at performing this task?”

Learners must therefore not only attain competency in their field, but they must also learn to understand what employers are looking for by first understanding the language of employability, which is an entire discussion on its own. To be put simply, they must understand how to demonstrate the capability, skills, and competencies they possess through the process of seeking employment.

It is the possession of these three things that skills mapping such as that undertaken by WGU and digital badging seek to address. The learner must be able to “prove” their claimed skills and competencies through an established framework.

Putting it all Together

For skills-based hiring to receive wide adoption, a few key things need to occur. The first is addressed in this particular blog post: we must all speak the same language of employability, from educators to learners, from job seekers to human resources personnel. We must establish a universal language of employability. But we also must shift in other ways as well:

  • We must better match human capability to career paths. A good software developer does not always make a good software developer manager: these are vastly different competencies, and we must create other career paths than the ones traditionally available.
  • Careers used to be made up of 1-3 companies over an employee’s lifetime. Now, employees change companies every four years on average. Companies must think of their human capital differently, not as cost centers but as producers of revenue.
  • Employers must support learning, even if there is no career opportunity in their company for the learner. As Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson said in 2014, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.”
  • Barriers to competency must be removed or at the very least smoothed. A four-year degree is a huge friction point.

Think of the changes already happening in 2020: you no longer need a degree to work at Google or Amazon, but degrees can be replaced by a demonstration of skills via non traditional education channels. IBM also has its own skills-based hiring and internal promotions programs no longer tied to university level achievements. Even the Federal government in the US is moving toward skills-based hiring for all employees due to an executive order.

This is just the beginning of a changing mindset that will enable skills-based hiring to become the rule rather than the exception.

Why is it important that we look at this individually? The truth is that a degree with a certain name may mean very different things depending on where and how it was obtained. A Masters in Organizational Leadership from the Chicago School of Psychology could mean the graduate possesses completely different capabilities, skills, and competencies than a student with the same degree obtained at the University of Southern California for example.

How do we assess against competencies? We need to re-evaluate the frameworks we currently use and likely develop entirely new ones. But before we can do that, we all need to start by speaking the same language.

What do the terms capability, skills, and competencies mean to you? How can we better define them and work them into the language of employability? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Connect with us

Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.


Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace

Download the Edalex eBook - Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace

Download the Series eBook

In this blog series, we seek to untangle the modern credential marketplace by examining it from multiple perspectives, including:

  • The changing nature and increasing focus on skills in employment settings
  • How required skills are identified for newly-created roles 
  • How skills are aligned to employment opportunities in the new global economy
  • How education providers may meet the education needs of the future
  • How learners can distinguish themselves through modern digital credentials 

 


Related Posts

Lens on Learners - The Many Types of Modern Learners - Edalex Blog

Image of Margo Griffith
Margo Griffith

What does the word 'learner' mean to you today - and compared to 5 years ago? What about in 5 years...

Read more

Lens on Lifelong Learners - Back to School for Career Progression Blog

Image of Margo Griffith
Margo Griffith

LIfelong learners or adult learners fall into a few different categories, but the broadest ones are...

Read more