What is a Skill Set?

People preparing for a morning meeting
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A skill set is a particular category of knowledge, abilities, and experience necessary to perform a job. Specific skill set areas include human relations, research and planning, accounting, leadership, management, and computer skills. You can job-hunt by matching your skill set to a certain profession, or enhance your skill set to further your career progression.

Types of Skill Sets

  • Soft skills are interpersonal, or people, skills. They are somewhat difficult to quantify and relate to a person’s personality and ability to work with others. Author Daniel Goleman's well-known book Emotional Intelligence discusses soft skills and their importance in the workplace. This skill set includes good communication, critical thinking, empathy, and conflict resolution, among other skills.​

  • Hard skills are quantifiable and teachable; they include specific knowledge and abilities required for a job. Examples of hard skills include computer programming, accounting, mathematics, and data analysis. Some can be learned on the job, while others, such as surgical skills, are first learned in a classroom and then refined through work practice.

  • One difference between hard skills and soft skills is that you can easily list hard skills on a resume, while soft skills may come across more clearly during an in-person job interview.

  • Transferable skills can apply to many different career fields. These include soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving, or hard skills such as writing and math ability.

  • Job-specific employment skills are those necessary for a particular position. For example, a hair stylist must know hair-coloring techniques, a payroll clerk must have payroll skills, and a nutritionist must have diet management knowledge.

    Matching Your Abilities to the Skills Required for a Job

    Show employers that you have the skills necessary when you apply for a job, by demonstrating this in your resume, cover letter, and during the interview. Job listings often include a list of skills that employers require of applicants. In your resume and cover letter, reference the skill sets you have that fit the job listing.

    In your cover letter, mention the computer skills, and provide a specific example of a job where you used those skills regularly, especially if it's in a manner that fits your new potential job. For example, if a position requires an applicant with strong computer skills, list the software programs you are familiar with, your level of expertise and any related projects you've worked on, such as software implementation or configuration.

    When preparing your resume, use keywords that describe your skills to employers so that if you post your resume online, it will turn up in search results for those key terms.

    Once you land an interview, prepare by making a list of your skill sets that relate to the job. For each skill set, come up with a particular example of a time you have demonstrated or used that skill in the past and practice a brief summary to share during your interview.

    How Do I Know What Skills I Have?

    Highlighting your skills is an important part of any job search. However, what if you are uncertain which skills you have? Answering these questions can help you determine your core skills:

    • What do you enjoy doing? Identify the tasks where you feel extremely competent. Perhaps throughout your life, you've enjoyed positions where you have knowledge and can patiently answer people's questions. That might be expressed as "communication skills" or "customer service abilities" from a resume perspective.

    • What gets you compliments? In a work setting, what activities lead to praise? Perhaps during performance reviews, you consistently receive acknowledgment for your team player abilities. Maybe your previous bosses have always commented on your timeliness or attention to detail.

    • What have you done at your jobs? Look to job descriptions, both for the job you want and for the jobs you've held and described on your resume. Consider the skills necessary to do the work. If you launched a new app at your last job, you likely know a programming language or have other tech-based skills. 

    How Do I Develop New Skill Sets?

    If you are looking for a job in an industry that requires a skill set you don't currently possess, one way to gain new skills is through skill sharing. Someone with a particular skill shares his or her knowledge in exchange for lessons from you in another skill.

    Often, this occurs online through a web tutorial, such as someone looking for a job in marketing that exchanges an online tutorial about web design for a tutorial in marketing strategy. You can also develop skills in other ways, including taking online courses in both hard and soft skills.