Abilities vs Skills: What's More Important When Hiring?

April 28, 2023

abilities vs skills what's more important when hiring

Skills and abilities are two terms that seem to be used almost interchangeably in recruitment. Recruiters are seeking candidates who have the right combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities to suit the job role that they are filling - but what is the difference between these descriptive terms?

In this article, we will discuss both skills and abilities, the differences between these two terms, and what they look like in recruitment. We will also be looking at which of these is most important when recruiting.

What are abilities?

Abilities describe things that are natural to you, things that are inherent to you and that you might have been born with.

These are aptitudes; some people might have a natural aptitude for athleticism while others might be naturally able to analyze. Aptitudes are sometimes referred to as natural talents, especially when it comes to world-class athletes or top-class scientists.

Ability describes the capacity to be able to do something. If you have an aptitude for something, you can usually develop it (through learning and practice), which then can turn that ability into a skill. An ability is the groundwork on which skills are built, but people can develop skills in an area that they don’t have a natural ability in - it just takes more work to get there.

In the workplace, and in recruitment, abilities might look like:

  • Research

  • Logical reasoning

  • Creativity

  • Negotiation

  • Verbal reasoning

  • Mechanical reasoning

  • Sensitivity

  • Memory

  • Numerical reasoning

  • Spatial reasoning

Why are abilities important when hiring?

Abilities are important to look at when hiring, because they can provide a framework for development, as well as pointing towards things like leadership potential as well.

Natural aptitude in things like literacy and numeracy are baselines that most recruitment teams are interested in, and they form the basis for most criteria used in job descriptions and screening tools.

The benefit of looking for abilities when hiring, especially when it comes to growth, is that natural aptitude shows potential for development in other ways. Someone with a natural aptitude with numbers might have a great potential for becoming an accountant or work in the finance department, or start doing something like data analytics - with the right training.

Looking for abilities might be important for early career recruitment in particular, where the development of ability into skill might not have happened yet, but could happen within the framework of a graduate position or similar.

For recruiters, then, keeping abilities in mind when screening candidates means being aware of potential.

What are skills?


Skills are something that a candidate develops, through knowledge and experience.

In effect, skill is essentially competency in something that has been developed, usually through study and practice. Abilities can be transformed into skills through learning and focus, and they can mean the difference between a naturally talented athlete being able to run a race, and a skilled athlete developing the necessary muscle memory and learning about tactics that help win a race.

Skills in the workplace are usually developed through education, while getting qualifications or certifications. They are improved further through experience and through practice, and this makes them stronger and more useful to a business - a skilled employee is able to be more productive earlier than one that needs to be developed.

Skills that you might be looking for in a candidate include two different categories:

Hard Skills

These are the skills that are based on technical knowledge and experience. They can be taught in school or at university, through online courses and in other ways too. They are hands-on and reasonably simple to evaluate through testing. These include things like:

  • Coding

  • Second (or more) languages

  • Data analysis

  • Woodworking

  • Software skills

Soft Skills

These types of skills are sometimes referred to as transferable skills, because they can be applied to any number of different roles in different industries. Soft skills usually refer to interpersonal skills that are used in the workplace, such as:

  • Leadership

  • Communication

  • Teamwork

  • Organization

Why are skills important when hiring?

When hiring, skills can be as important as qualifications when looking for someone who is capable of doing the job.

A skilled candidate already has the ability to do something, alongside the knowledge and practice to become skilled - so they are usually in a better position to ‘hit the ground running’ and make a difference to the business.

Certain skills are necessary for roles, especially those that require hard skills - like carpentry, plumbing, and electronics, or even software programming and coding. These will be non-negotiable when it comes to particular roles - if you are hiring for a software development project, you will need to be looking for a candidate who already has the skills that are needed.

Skills are also something that can be developed further, or added to as needed.

Abilities vs Skills: Which is more important?

While both abilities and skills might be used to describe similar capabilities and competencies, when it comes to hiring what is most important depends entirely on the job role that you are hiring for.

As previously mentioned, abilities are natural talents, and they can be nurtured into skills through learning, knowledge, and practice. This is ideal when it comes to developing people early in their careers and forming them into specific ways of doing things that are part of the business.

Abilities can be useful additions to skills that can point to learning and development opportunities for career growth too. A candidate with abilities, as well as the specific skills that you are looking for, could be someone that might be perfect for training towards leadership, for example.

Skills are usually key to recruiting someone capable of completing the tasks needed in the role. A skilled staff member is someone who can demonstrate that they are able to do something to a higher standard - this goes beyond knowledge and theory, and into the practical application that can only be found through experience.

Skills (like abilities) can be developed further, of course, and identifying skills and skill gaps in an employee once they are hired will form a structure for personal and professional development.

Balancing abilities and skills in hiring


The most sensible and balanced way to hire a candidate is to look for the right combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are needed for the role.

In an ideal world, finding a candidate that has all the skills needed for success might sound like the best way to fill a position, but in reality, some measure of compromise will need to be made.

In these cases, looking for a candidate with demonstrable skills that are needed, alongside desirable abilities, backed up with knowledge is going to be best.

Knowledge is quite obvious to look for in a candidate, you can usually see what knowledge a candidate has that is relevant for the role in their qualifications and education level. Knowledge of the theory is part of the overall development of abilities and skills.

Candidates who already have the knowledge and the ability are likely to find it easier to develop skills, and recruiters who are ready to harness abilities can turn potential into reality.

There are different ways that a recruiter can assess knowledge, skills, and abilities in the hiring process.

Screening of resumes and application forms, whether manually or using an ATS, can highlight the knowledge that a candidate has - through their listed qualifications and certifications.

Pre-screening tests can help with both skills and abilities.

Tests in programming and software are just some of the skill assessments that can be useful in recruitment, and there are tests specifically designed to help evaluate soft skills like communication, leadership and teamwork.

When it comes to abilities, aptitude tests are an ideal way to evaluate the level of ability, especially when it comes to different kinds of reasoning. Verbal, numerical and logical reasoning tests can show inherent, natural abilities, as can spatial and mechanical reasoning.

Keeping skills and abilities in mind through the interview process - asking questions specifically about behavior and experience - will ensure that the right balance is found for the ideal candidate.

Final thoughts

A good recruitment funnel has various screening stages, and at each one of these candidates should be assessed for the specific skills, abilities, and knowledge that they can bring to the role.

Although skills and abilities might be used to describe similar things, understanding the differences between these two terms and what they mean for a candidate’s performance in a role is important.

The balance between knowledge, skills, and ability is not just about finding the right candidate for now, but also ensuring the employee is able to grow and develop, personally and professionally in the role.

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