Skill is usually understood as an ability to do something well, either manually, mentally, or both. In contrast to terms that denote only potential for acquiring some ability (such as natural ability, talent, aptitude, or capacity), the term skill usually means actual competence that has been acquired by training, schooling, or practice. The concept is used in several disciplines (most importantly economics, sociology, psychology, education, and ergonomics), has many meanings, and is applied for different purposes and in a variety of contexts.
The term skill is used mainly to refer to (1) a level of individual performance, in the sense of accuracy and speed in performing particular tasks, or (2) qualities required for successful performance in particular jobs and tasks. Economists and educational psychologists tend to use the concept of skill in the first sense: to describe the abilities acquired by an individual such as a worker, which may include cognitive skills, manual dexterity, knowledge, and social skills. These researchers often take skill as an independent variable and use it, for example, in predicting wage levels. In sociology, on the contrary, skills are often taken as qualities required of a particular job, in terms of the range and complexity of the tasks involved, level of discretion over work and time, and the knowledge and training needed to learn the job. Many sociologists thus view skill as a dependent variable and try to explain variations in the level of skill within occupations, economies, and/or over time. For analysis of changing skills levels over time, the historical example of craft workers often stands as a benchmark.
Although skill has always been a somewhat ambiguous and rarely precisely defined term, in the past it had a much narrower meaning than today. It tended to be equated with craft, technical know-how, and manual dexterity. Gradually, however, the importance of mental qualities was acknowledged and motor skills and cognitive skills were distinguished. While motor skills require voluntary body movement to achieve a goal, cognitive skills do not involve muscular movement and involve activities such as problem solving, memory, or reading (Tomporowski 2003). More recently, the concept of skill was further broadened. In addition to “hard skills” (both motor and cognitive), the importance of “soft skills” was underlined. They include effective communication, creativity, flexibility, change readiness, leadership, team building, and so on. Much discussion has also been given to the distinction between “generic” (also “transferable” or “key”) skills on the one hand and occupational or job-specific skills on the other. While occupation-specific skills have value only in one particular sector or industry, generic skills have value in a number of sectors. The tendency to re-label as skills personal traits and attitudes and to term many concrete and abstract human dispositions as “skills” further broadened and blurred the concept.
In social theories, the concept of skill is usually linked to the labor market, education, and technology. Authors, however, differ fundamentally on the role skills are supposed to play. The origins of the skill concept are often connected with Karl Marx. The dominant interpretation of Marx’s work suggests that capitalists, through mechanization of labor and the manufacturing system, reduced skills requirement to increase productivity and profits and to increase control over workers and work organization. This line of reasoning was followed in so-called de-skilling theory, assuming a process of job degradation (Braverman 1974). In sharp contrast, the thesis of postindustrial and/or knowledge societies posits a general upgrading of skills and stresses the growing importance of cognitive skills. Human capital theory also stresses the importance of knowledge and skills to economic performance and assumes that employers adjust earnings to reflect both skills and educational attainment. Workers with scarce skills are supposed to obtain better-paid and more secure jobs than those without them, and skills and education are assumed to be highly correlated. In contrast, credential theory (Collins 1979) views education as a biased indicator of skill and asserts that colleges function more as a rationing device in job allocation than as skills provider. Educational credentials are supposed to be a much more important determiner of labor force reward than skill.
Theoretical positions also differ in the extent to which skill level is supposed to be objective or socially constructed (Spenner 1990). Neoclassical demand-side perspectives (for example, the theory of the firm) as well as supply-side perspectives (such as human capital theory) tend to take the nature of skills as objective, determined by market mechanisms and the logics of efficiency and return on capital. An opposing view is that skill level is not an objective phenomenon but a social construct. Occupations and jobs are labeled as skilled, semiskilled, or unskilled on the basis of custom and practice, such as union negotiation or job regulation. The most direct method of enhancing an occupation’s power is to remove itself from market competition (so-called social closure), establishing a monopoly over some tasks and thus gaining the ability to increase the price of services and therefore prestige (Attewell 1990). Occupations that can restrict entry, require a lengthy period of training, and remove themselves linguistically from lay language (consider Latin in medicine or slang in many professions) can create a public perception of work that requires exceptional knowledge and skill. In contrast, certain types of work may thus objectively require a high level of technical skill but go unrewarded in the labor market.
From the epistemological point of view, positivists and ethnomethodologists can be determined (Attewell 1990). Positivists treat skill as an attribute that has an objective character independent of the observer and is amenable to more or less objective measurement. They also reflect the Cartesian division of intellect and body and regard the former as superior. Skill is acquired when one achieves knowledge about general and abstract principles and rules that are context free. Not surprisingly, they take cognitive skills, especially the most complex and abstract ones, as higher-level skills. In sharp contrast, ethnomethodologists suggest that all human activities, even the most mundane such as walking or carrying on a conversation, are quite complex and require a complex coordination of perception, movement, and decision. Because these mundane activities are extraordinarily complicated, they cannot be attended consciously. Conscious reflection of activity is thus an indication of incomplete learning rather than mastery. Skill means the ability to do things without thinking about them. A master’s skills are not based on conscious, abstract, and context-free knowledge but rather on tacit and context-bound knowledge. In consequence, ethnomethodologists consider abstract rules as being at a much lower level of skill and challenge positivist and quantitative approach to measuring skills.
Empirical research on skills usually follows the positivist approach. Based on the distinction between skill as an individual competence and as a job requirement, skill supply and skill demand measures are usually distinguished. Both skill supply and skill demand can be measured both directly and indirectly. As for skill demand (that is, skill requirements of jobs), direct measures involve (1) job classification based on some kind of external judgment, and (2) self-reported (by the jobholder) requirements. Indirect measures include the average or typical education among job incumbents. Because of lack of data, many researchers use indirect measurement or infer skill demand from data on skill supply (usually education) and wages. This approach, however, has an important limitation—it conflates the supply and demand sides of skill (workers and jobs). Many studies have found that education, skill, and labor reward are not equivalent concepts and that their interchangeability precludes testing of the various theories stated earlier. Thus, direct measures of skills requirements, though not without problems, are preferred. The most widely used direct measures of skill demands are occupational schemas, such as the American Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). As for skill supply (workers’ skills), only indirect measures are usually available. These include the sum of years of vocational or formal education, years of on-the-job experience, or wage rates. In the 1990s large-scale international surveys such as International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) were introduced, allowing direct and international measurement of cognitive skills (OECD 2000).
The concept of skill must be always used with care, and one must bear in mind that different theoretical approaches define and measure skills in quite different ways, especially since skill theory and measurement have several fundamental and direct policy implications. From the policy point of view it is important to know (1) whether capitalism and/or new technologies are deskilling or up-skilling work, how skills needs change over time, and what skills will be needed in the future; (2) how much (and what type) of education is needed in the labor market and what causes skills mismatches; (3) to what extent unequal labor force rewards are determined by education, skills, or discrimination; (4) how skills are distributed within and between countries, and whether the distribution is increasingly polarized; (5) how skills are created in different education and training systems; (6) how to measure and classify skills in a standard way to ensure labor mobility and qualification recognition; (7) what type of skills are needed in nonmarket relationships, such as family or community; and (8) to what extent education should provide students with generic or specific skills. Because the concept of skill is difficult to define and started to be measured directly only very recently, it is not possible to give a definite answer to any of these eight questions. Analyses done so far (e.g., Kerckhoff, Raudenbush, and Glennie 2001), however, confirmed that skill is not a redundant term but an empirically independent factor, one that needs to be taken as a separate theoretical construct.
SEE ALSO Credentialism; Knowledge Society; Labor Market; Soft Skills
Attewell, Paul. 1990. What Is Skill. Work and Occupations 17 (4): 422-448.
Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.
Collins, Randall. 1979. The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press.
Kerckhoff, Alan C., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Elizabeth Glennie. 2001. Education, Cognitive Skill, and Labor Force Outcomes. Sociology of Education 74 (1): 1-24.
OECD and Statistics Canada. 2000. Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Statistics Canada.
Spenner, Kenneth I. 1990. “Skill: Meanings, Methods, and Measures.” Work and Occupations 17 (4): 399-421.
Tomporowski, Phillip D. 2003. The Psychology of Skill: A Life Span Approach. Westport, CT: Praeger.
. See also ABILITY.
skill / skil/ • n. the ability to do something well; expertise: difficult work, taking great skill. ∎ a particular ability: the basic skills of cooking. DERIVATIVES: skill-less adj. ( archaic ).
Hence skilled (-ED2) XVI.