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What is the difference between skills and qualities?

Employers look for applicants with the know-how to perform certain tasks essential to their role. These often come in the form of skills and qualities - two subtly different sets of attributes which are both useful in the workplace. So what is the difference between skills and qualities?

In this guide, we will explore skills and qualities and how understanding the difference can help you gain a job and succeed in the workplace.

To answer the question, “what is the difference between skills and qualities?” we first need to look at what each of these are.

'What is the difference between skills and qualities?'

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What are skills?

Employability skills or “key skills” are the basic skills you need to do a particular job. A skill is the ability to do a particular task well and with expertise. It is something that can be learnt.

Students in a classroom, with a teacher at the front
Like skills, qualities can be learnt, developed and nurtured

For example, communication is a skill we learn as we grow up and develop throughout our education. We all have communication skills to some degree. Students who study subjects such as English and history may develop written or verbal communication skills to an advanced level, particularly if they study the subject at degree level. However, you will develop communication skills in all subjects, as every subject requires you to communicate information in one way or another.

People who specialise in roles such as marketing, copywriting, public relations or journalism develop high-level communication skills which enable them to do their job. This means they are able to communicate well quickly and efficiently. For example, a PR agent might be able to write a professional-level press release within a short space of time, a level of communication not required in a less specialist role.

We continually enhance and develop our skills in the work we do and in other areas of our lives.

What are qualities?

While skills can be learnt through practice, qualities are considered to be characteristics and personality traits which are to some extent in-built or “inherent”.

For example, if you say someone is a “natural leader” you may be referring to a quality they have rather than a skill they have learnt. Qualities can be developed and nurtured but they rely on a pre-existing ability to do something rather than being something you can learn from scratch.

They might also refer to something you feel comfortable and confident doing. For example, you may be a “natural talker” and very happy and confident presenting to large teams and senior colleagues. However, many people learn the skill of presenting or communication without ever being particularly keen on delivering presentations to large groups of people! They are good at it because they have learn it through practice. This is a skill rather than a quality.

What is the difference between skills and qualities?

In practice, skills and qualities can be nurtured in the same way: through practice. The difference between skills and qualities is often not clear-cut.

Combining skills and qualities is often the best way to turn them into valuable attributes in the workplace. The natural talker we looked at in the previous example may have the makings of a great presenter – but without practice, training and nurturing, there may be many elements of good presenting that they lack. For example, they need to learn how to maintain focus and relevance when presenting in a professional setting.

Examples of skills:

You can read more about skills in our employability skills section, but here are a few examples:

Examples of qualities:

It’s important to remember that although these examples are things that are often in-built qualities, they can also be learnt, developed and nurtured as skills, even if you struggle with these attributes. In the guides linked below you can find out how to develop these attributes at work and school/college.

Now you understand the difference between skills and qualities, find out more about the things you need for a successful working life in our working life section.