The “Skill Set” Pigeonhole

The phrase “skill set” has always irked me. It brings to mind the many conversations about hiring in which I’ve participated, whether on the employer side or as a prospective candidate. If you haven’t previously done exactly the kind of work someone needs you for, freelance or otherwise, the conclusion often is “the skill sets don’t match.” As if they’re shopping for a ball bearing for a Toyota — or a donor of a kidney.

This inappropriately narrow selection process is a mutual one. Candidates usually market themselves, in part, by making mind-numbing lists of items in their employability repertoire, in the hope that the hirers will find the desired skill in there somewhere. The search for the right employee — or the right job — thereby becomes less of a dynamic hunt than a wild-goose chase, except that the searchers tend to kid themselves that they’ve found the elusive bird. It’s a fool’s errand.

In a freelance context, the immediate consequences of the “skill set” approach to searching are obvious. Everyone gets to check off the requisite boxes, and whether the match will really work is left to little better than chance. That’s because both sides have essentially just queried, rather than interviewed, each other. Not knowing what you’re getting is bad enough when you’re aware that you’re in the dark — it’s even worse when you mistakenly assume you know exactly what you have.

But that short-term pitfall is only the half of it. Multiply this myopia by the millions and you end up with a freelance labor pool that’s been ghettoized into highly specialized niches. Work in one narrow area begets more work in that same area, and all the birds nest comfortably in their pigeonholes. Sure, specialization breeds expertise — but only to a point. In time, roles become overspecialized, which leads to complacency and stagnation as expectations solidify and everyone involved begins to value predictability above all else.

With the hired birds stuck in their pigeonholes instead of using their wings, it’s quality that starts to go south. Quality of the work, quality of life, and quality of the exchange between the freelancer and the people who pay her.

If, instead, freelancers are permitted to venture beyond their nests and reflect a bit on their work from a perch, they have the potential to offer the hirer a valuable independent perspective (see “Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant”). And those who hire contractors can actively foster such contributions by providing thoughtful feedback. That kind of dynamism keeps everyone sharp, and it can prevent the misunderstandings that silence often creates.

When skills are allowed to set, they tend to go stale. A feathered nest isn’t so comfortable if the quills are stiff and brittle.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

4 Responses to The “Skill Set” Pigeonhole

  1. The pigeon holing is usually two-sided. On one hand, the contractor thinks they know exactly what they need, and, on the other hand, they think they know exactly what skills are required to do the task. This intensifies the tunnel vision limiting their ability to find a fresh, new voice to help them grow.

    As a novice freelancer (under two years), I have been fortunate to receive a wide variety of assignments – from writing the Help for a software program to preparing a training manual. This has worried me, and I’ve wondered if I should be specializing. Your post encouraged me to promote my breadth of experience and skills rather than limit it.

  2. Ann says:

    This posting could not be more timely for me. I have been drowning for several weeks now in a sea of overspecialization. Too much of any one task becomes dreary and depleting. It is like overextending one muscle and letting the others go lax. My work is at its best, and my spirits are highest, when I have variety. Tasks like editing, writing, research, teaching or tutoring, collaborating, and so on all support and reinforce one another. Dealing with pigeonholing and stereotyping has been one of the ongoing challenges of my working life. Employers sometimes seem puzzled or startled when someone expresses an interest or shows ability in more than one area. I don’t understand this. We spend so many hours working–why wouldn’t we want to keep our workload fresh and interesting? (At the same time, I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of stereotyping myself, based on my previous experience.)

    As a newcomer to freelancing, I have really enjoyed reading this blog.

  3. Penny, the narrow selection process is definitely a mutual one. I do everything I can to avoid being entrapped by it. For example, I teach both math and English, and I edit content from cooking to corporate ethics to cardiology. Yet I still get questions like “I see you have a lot of business editing experience, but have you done much work in operations management?” I want so much for a question like that to be a joke, but it never is.

    Ann, thank you for reading. I agree with you 100% about variety. It’s always tough for people who can work in many domains to decide how to present themselves to folks who live and breathe overspecialization. One of my old posts on HBR.org, “When to Show Your Versatility,” touches on this issue. You can get right to it by clicking on the phrase “highly specialized niches” in the post we’re commenting on here.

  4. I tend to go back and forth between my creative skills and my technical skills and have done quite a bit of both over the past 15 years. I do sometimes find that people are confused not so much about what I can or can’t do but what I really “want” to do-they can’t seem to understand that I like doing both. They are always afraid I will not stick around becaues I am not doing what they think I want to do. I feel very misunderstood sometimes.

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