By Helen Crane

More than half of employees with specialist skills now consider their job to be mostly generalist despite the fact that they were employed for their niche skills, according to recent survey.

Oliver Watson, managing director at PageGroup, who undertook the research, says: “If this trend continues, we risk creating a generation of generalists, which will undoubtedly hinder individuals’ career development and ultimately damage the UK’s ability to compete effectively in a global economy.”
So when you’re looking for a new role, is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

Generalists tend to have a broad range of skills and experience across a range of disciplines within their field, while specialists invest time and effort in becoming the go-to person in a certain niche. 

For example, an advertising generalist may have experience across the sector along with a good set of transferrable business skills; a specialist would know everything there is to know about print advertising.

Traditionally, people have been advised to steer clear of appearing too “general” on their CV. “Usually, specific skills are valued more because they are more difficult to teach,” says Nannette Ripmeester, founder of Expertise in Labour Mobility.

Some experts now believe that may be about to shift as organisations try to do more with less. In the PageGroup survey, 23% of people said the economic climate was responsible for their role becoming more generalist, and Ripmeester agrees. “There’s a cutback in people but the work isn’t getting less, so lots of people are doing things that are not entirely part of their job,” she says.

Alyson Pellowe, managing consultant at HR consultants People Vision, agrees: “I think organisations are keen to bring in specialist support as and when needed and are prepared to pay for it. Organisations need more from their people with less money.”

For those starting out in their careers, being a generalist may also provide them with the opportunity to test their options before specialising. Dominic Wyld, head of graduate business at Guardian Jobs, says: “Having a range of different experiences and skill sets can allow employees to identify what their ideal role would be over time, and then look for specialist jobs. For example, the traditional graduate recruitment model at most large organisations would be for them to work in a number of different areas of the company before being identified as a specialist in one particular area.”

At the opposite end of the career ladder, more generalist skills are also useful. Among the survey respondents, 60% thought their boss was a good generalist, and transferable skills – such as people management and leadership – are often associated with more senior roles.

Ripmeester says: “It’s a given fact that the higher up the career ladder you go, the more general and managerial skills you need. If you are able to practise those and show that you excel at them early on, it could catapult your career to a different level.”

Ultimately, supplementing your broad base of skills with a sprinkling of expert knowledge is your best bet. “This is a struggle for some personalities as some people like to deep dive into areas,” says Pellowe.

If you are a specialist who wants to broaden your horizons and gain seniority, Pellowe suggests you “take on projects, join steering groups, do community and voluntary work to gain exposure”.

“Understand that you have to shift your mindset and be more open, and try change. It may be fun,” she says.

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