What's the difference between tools and skills?

May 12, 2020

This is a question I ask myself often when reviewing resumes. The second my eyes fall upon the absurdly dense 10 point font ‘Skills and Abilities’ section I immediately sigh and want to skip right past. Typically this section is filled with a list of tools that resemble the music industry’s top 50 songs… if it’s hot it’s part of the list.

During these types of experiences I find myself asking an internal question; do people understand the difference between a tool and a skill? Do people understand that employers value skills over tools? Usually these are rhetorical questions but today I’ll venture to answer.

An old adage that frequently comes to mind is “Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime”. It doesn’t directly answer the question but when deconstructed helps to highlight the differences.

Photo by Matthew McBrayer on Unsplash

Let’s rewind a bit and start with definitions.

What is a tool? A device or implement, especially one held in hand, used to carry out a particular function. (Oxford dictionary)

What is a skill? The ability to do something well; expertise. (Oxford dictionary)

Let’s use context to better frame these definitions.

In the case of a tool an example could be a fishing rod. Fishing rods are designed for the purpose of assisting people in catching fish.

In the case of a skill an example could be fishing. Fishermen must learn a wide range of information including fish behavior, the different types of environments, different types of fish, bait, types of fishing techniques, and so much more.

Using these definitions and context we understand that a fishermen uses their skills to operate the fishing rod tool. The knowledge acquired by the fishermen about fishing overall allows them to effectively use the fishing rod in the task of catching fish.

This also means that a fishermen with all of their fish catching wisdom could catch fish in the absence of a fishing rod. The knowledge empowers the fishermen to use other tools in achieving the fish catching outcome.

This is why employers value skills over tools.

I do not wish to insult anyone in claiming that they do not understand the difference between skills and tools but people do fall victim to the pressure of overselling themselves; remember the ‘Skills and Abilities’ section. In an effort to capture the interest of employers people list the information they believe sizzles the most.

As an employer that has made mistakes in hiring I am hyper sensitive to confirming skills over tools. Tools are great contextual information but as our example highlights skills transcend tools. Candidates with the proper skills are agnostic to the tools they use.

This however speaks to a larger challenge when evaluating skills; confirmation. It’s one thing to list a skill but it’s entirely different to confirm what level of mastery a person has achieved. In the context of a resume it comes down to subjective descriptions of past jobs and experiences along with references that are unlikely to share negative information. There’s a whole industry formed to help employers in vetting candidates but it still feels like a shot in the dark. The only exceptions are hiring people within your network with personal accounts of their skills and abilities.

When it comes down to the bottom line of selling yourself, knowledge and expertise are held in higher regard than the specific devices you are knowledgeable of; most of the time. If nothing else I hope those of you presenting yourself emphasize skills and increase the font just a bit.

As for confirmation, there are a number of services and products becoming available that assist in providing more visibility into tangible skills knowledge. The challenge is finding them. In my career focus of Data & Analytics I know of one.

If you know of others please share.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author: My name is Ion King and I am the Chief Officer at Corsair's Ventures. My focus is on helping others passionate about growing careers in Data Science & Analytics achieve their goals. Connect with me on LinkedIn or find more of my articles on medium

(images: Photo by Bekky Bekks on Unsplash; Photo by Matthew McBrayer on Unsplash)

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