Conception of Skill

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A quarter century ago skill was generally referred to as manual dexterity (tool usage or control) and to some understanding of underpinning bodies of theory and knowledge associated with the exercise of particular trades or occupations. Hence, there has been growing priority of softer social skills and personal attributes such as manner, deportment, appearance, dress sense, accent, ability to get on with people and self confidence (Payne, 1999; Grugulis et al, 2004). As one employee reports 'one recruit attitude' (Calligham and Thompson, 2002:240). These attributes and attitudes are being referred to as skills (Payne, 1999 cited in Stephen Bach, 2007).

One of the most difficult to describe and hard to define concept is 'skill' (Warhurst, Grugulis and Keep, 2004), in a survey carried out by (Francis and Penn, 1994), they concluded that different occupational groups will categorize skill in different ways, which suggests that a person's conception of skill is largely based on his or her own experiences of employment.

Therefore, this essay aims at defining the approaches of skills and also what these approaches are and why it is fundamental in analyzing skill.


Skill is defined as the expertise, ability or competence to undertake specific activities often acquired through formal instruction or work experience (Brown et al, 2001).

The dictionary definition of skill reveals the complexity of the concept. At the core of all definitions is the idea of competence or proficiency-the ability to do something well. The word encompasses both mental and physical proficiency meaning skill implies understanding or knowledge, it also implies physical dexterity. In distinguishing between skill as mundane accomplishment and skill as virtuosity will help give theoretical insights into the mechanisms that underlie skilled activities, failure to distinguish between the two senses of the word can lead to conceptual confusion (Attewell, 1990).

Attewell's research indicates four distinct sociological notions of skill which yields different images of skill.

v  Positivist

v  Ethno-methodological

v  Weberian

v  Marxist


This refers to those who treat skill as an attribute amenable to qualitative measurement and believe that this attribute has an objective character independent of the observer. With this assumption, at the outset positivists are faced with two issues: First, should skill be treated as a measureable attribute of persons or jobs/tasks (Spenner, 1983)? Second, should apparently diverse or qualitatively different skills be rendered commensurate and hence measurable? Is there a yardstick that underlies varied skills? (Attewell, 1990).


This is completely at odds with the positivists assumptions about complexity, routine, and conscious analysis, it offers a view of human activity and hence, skills.  The core of this perspective is the idea that all human activity, even the most mundane, is quite complex. Things such as walking, crossing the road and carrying on a conversation that everyone does, are amazing accomplishments requiring a complex coordination of perception, movement, and decision, a myriad of choices, and a multitude of skills (Garfinkel, 1969).

The Weberian School

This school tries to understand the conditions under which occupations are socially demarked as skilled and the processes by which some jobs come to command higher standing than others. This school points that tasks complexity becomes important as it creates uncertainty as to whether and how the task can be accomplished. This then becomes the core around which practitioners build claims to skill, even when their knowledge and techniques are modest (Attewell, 1990).


The Marxist School

This school enters skill from three areas which are: in the labor theory of value, in debates concerning the "labor aristocracy," and in the theory of alienation and technological change. However it would be misleading to suggest that classical Marxist has a well articulated theory of skill as such. Marx and Engels' writings provide theoretical hints and some neo-Marxists have built upon these. Hence, many contemporary Marxists treat skill as a "common sense" category which does not require explication, while other neo-Marxists treatments of skill frequently shade into either positivist or social constructionist thinking (Attewell, 1990).


There are three approaches to the analysis of skill as shown in (Table 1).

v  Skill in the person

v  Skill in the job

v  Skill in the setting



Principal Area of Concern

Typical Method of Analysis

Typically Adopted by:

Person Individual attributes acquired through:

  • Education
  • Qualification
  • Training
  • Experience

Questionnaire surveys

Aptitude test / Experiments



Job Task requirements

  • Complexity
  • Discretion

Job analysis

Job evaluation



Management theorists

Industrial / Employment

Relations theorists


Setting Social relations

Case studies of industries and occupations

Ethnographic studies of workplaces

Social historians


Table 1: Skill approaches (Source: Noon M. & Blyton P., 2002)

Skill in the person

In this aspect, the skill centers on the quality possessed by the individual through knowledge, dexterity, judgment, linguistic ability which is accumulated as a result of education, training and experience (Noon and Bylton, 2002). Skill that focuses on the person often attempts to identify individual attributes and qualities and seek to measure these by the use of aptitude test under experimental conditions. Psychologists agree with this approach and view it as an independent variable (Vallas, 1990). Hence, questionnaires might be distributed to assess the individual's education, training and experience which could serve as a proxy for skill- a method mostly used by economists (Cockburn, 1983).

Some commentators have argued that there is a need to broaden the definition of skill in the person by labeling certain personal characteristics as skills. Warhurst, Grugulis and Keep (2004) points that attitudes, character traits and predispositions are being described by employers as skills required and they lacking in the labor market. Lafer (2004) argues that a skill is a quality learned or developed by individuals that will secure them a living, however, many of the new 'skills' such as punctuality, appearance, manner e.t.c. are not skills because alone, they cannot secure an individual a living wage although they might be prerequisite for getting a job in the first place and are also required in order to remain in employment. Lafer points that the consequence of broadening the definition of skill means the concept of skill in the person becomes increasingly meaningless.

Skill in the person is very essential in the labor market, as Becker (1964) argues that in a market economy, an individual's human capital will determine his or her value as an employee. An individual can choose to increase their human capital through taking advantage of educational opportunities and training or they can as well choose to ignore these opportunities and as such lower their relative value in the labor market. This approach is typified of human capital theorist, they point that the responsibility for success in work lies with the individual and they raise the notion of meritocratic society, where individual effort is rewarded (Noon and Blyton, 2002).

Skill in the job

In this case, the focus is on assessing the skill required by the job rather than the skill possessed by the individual doing the job. Sociologist agrees with this approach and view skill as a dependent variable (Vallas, 1990). Attention is placed on the complexity of the tasks required to perform a job and the extent of discretion in the job which is of keen interest to individual/employment relation theorist.

According to Noon and Blyton, (2002), the more complex the task required by the job, the more skilled the job is. There is however, need to measure the extent of complexity so as to arrive at a skill level. Hence, different jobs could be reflected in systems of status and remuneration which takes the form of job evaluation schemes.

Discretion is of great importance in a job. Discretion involves choosing between alternatives required by an activity. The greater the number of decisions required by an activity, the greater the skill level. The more the employee is able to exercise his/her judgment, then the more skilled a task may be said to be. Therefore, examining the amount of rules employees are obliged to follow will serve as an assessment of the skill level: the more rules, the less scope for discretion and the lower their skill will be judged to be. Discretion is the key element of job skill. It grants workers the space to develop their expertise and to exercise judgment and features heavily in academic attempts to theorize skill (Grugulis, 2007).


Feature of Skilled Work Identified as Important

Most Likely to be Identified as Important by:

Apprenticeship Older, male, manual workers (particularly those processing apprenticeship qualifications)
Training Younger, female, public-sector service employees (particularly those processing higher level qualifications)
Qualifications Women (particularly in retail distribution). Younger respondents people with lower - level qualification
High Abilities Men

People with higher level qualification

Experience No specific group

Table 2: Based on Francis and Pen (1994). The survey comprised of nine hundred and eighty seven adults aged between 20 and 60, and was undertaken in Rochdale, U.K. in 1986. (Source: Noon M. And Blyton P., 2002)

Education, apprenticeship, training and qualification all focus on developing and maintaining individual skill. Cockburn (1983) and Littler (1982) have argued that skill is also an aspect of jobs and work can be designed to make use of demand, develop and deploy skills just as it can also minimize the need for skill (Grugulis, 2007). When individual possess skill in the job it may enhance organizational benefits. It ensures consistency of product; work is been completed quickly and satisfactory. Workers with appropriate skill will know about the product they are producing and make decisions on how they might best work or judge the quality of their labor.

It is important to note that as individuals gain knowledge of the organization they work in their level of skill increases by seeing the way their system operates, experience problems been solved successfully and learn which of their colleagues to approach with certain requests. Felstead et al's (2000) analysis of survey data reveals that even when respondents have held the same job for five years there is still an increasing demand for skills suggesting that workers gain in skills and experience over time.

In addition, skill in the individual and skill in the job are closely linked. Hence, skill is important to an employer because an employer cannot employ an individual that does not have the skill required in the job.

Skill in the setting

The definition of skill in the social setting is Cockburn's 1983 third element. Individual status or group may protect skill, in same way as skill itself confers status. This means to an extent, skill, status and control are necessarily linked; expertise may require control over work and this brings with it higher status. Those aspects of social life that do not relate with skill but confer to status, impacts on the way skill is been perceived (Grugulis, 2007).

Skills are socially and politically negotiated and it reflects the power and influence of diverse interest groups. As Sadler (1970:23) has observed, 'skill is to a considerable extent determined by social factors present in the work situation and in the occupational culture at large … [and therefore includes] the evaluations placed on particular kinds of activity and on particular classes of individual and the actions of organized pressure groups directed at safeguarding the earnings and job security of particular trades and professions' (Noon and Blyton, 2002). This then means skill in the social setting is important as it create room for protectionism; certain groups want to protect their skills in order to form a particular status.

Social setting can be viewed from the notion of 'social closure' which is one fundamental concept of sociology as defined by Weber (1947) and elaborated by Parkin (1979) and Kreckel (1980).

Social Closure or Skilled Status

The total process of occupational social closure is composed of three interacting sub-processes (see Fig.1).

v  An ideological process: in this case individuals recognise a shared set of values, beliefs and reinforce these symbolically.

v  A political process, whereby group members act collectively, combines their resources in pursuit of common goals.

v  A material process, whereby members of the group seek to appropriate the tools and technology to the work process and control or influence the work organisation.



As a result of the different theoretical perspective of skill, there has been little consensus about the way skill should be assessed and, indeed different perspective tend to base their argument upon different concepts of skill (Attwell, 1990; Spenner, 1990; Vallas, 1990; Gallie, 1991). This has made the issue very controversial.

However, the different meaning of skill centers on the three approaches above- skill in the person, skill in the job and skill in social setting. Hence, there are still unanswered questions about skill. What is the generally acceptable definition of skill? as work is changing continually, hence, demanding different abilities. Are people becoming deskilled or up skilled?



Attwell, P. (1990). 'What is Skill?'  Work and Occupations. Vol. 17, No. 4, pp 422-443.

Brown, P; Green, A.  and Lauder, H. (2001). 'High Skills'. Oxford University Press.

Keep, E. (2005). 'Skills, training and the quest for the Holy Grail of influence and status' in Bach, S. (ed) Managing Human Resources: Personnel Management in Transition 4th edition Oxford: Blackwell.

Grugulis, I. (2007). 'Skills, Training and Human Resource Development'. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Noon, M. and Blyton, P. (2002). 'The Realities of Work'. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vallas, S.P. (1990). 'The concept of skill: a critical review' Work and Occupations Vol 17, No. 4, pp 379-398.

Warhurst, C., Grugulis, I. And Keep, E. (2004). 'The Skills that Matter'. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.