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.