Understanding skills is not helped by false binary distinctions

English is a rich language, with many synonyms (words with similar meaning), new words being added and other words fading in usage. When it comes to the language of skills, there are multiple words used to define and distinguish. These words help to clarify what we’re talking about and how skills differ from each other.

Categories can be problematic

Problems can arise, however, when we define and distinguish. Take, as an example, how we distinguish generations, commonly referred to as Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, to name some of them. These generations are defined as social groups of people born within a defined time period and who share similar traits, values and preferences. While it can be useful to understand the age of a person and how this may impact their thinking and behaviour, these generational labels are fraught if taken too literally and exclusive of other information.

Framing a person only by their generational category needs to take into account some potential problems. Generational labels:

  • foster stereotypes and character judgement: you are a Baby Boomer therefore you are inflexible and slow to learn new skills.
  • are blurred at the edges: If you’re born in 1965 are you really a Gen X or could you be a Baby Boomer?
  • focus on differences between age groups and downplay similarities.
  • ignore the wide variation within each age group.

Another example is the distinction between higher education and vocational education. A NSW review of VET, In the Same Sentence: Bringing higher and vocational education together, by Gonski and Shergold, 2021, identified the impact of this outdated distinction and the need for a new type of tertiary institution. Their proposed Institute of Applied Technology (IAT) model will, as the website explains: “deliver fully integrated theoretical and practical employability skills, provided through a number of constituent colleges, with curriculums designed in collaboration with industry and focused on the state’s emerging labour market needs.” The NSW government has accepted all five recommendations Gonski and Shergold made.

Limitations of binary distinctions

Categorising, by its very nature, is separating things to distinguish them. One way of categorising a subject is to use a binary, two labels which are seen as mutually exclusive: up/down, black/white, male/female.

Binary distinctions can work well in informing regulation and policies. What may have worked when established may no longer be accurate or relevant. We see this in employment law, which, as Kieran Pender has pointed out in The Saturday Paper, “has operated on a binary distinction between employees and independent contractors”, a system that has favoured employees while leaving independent contractors largely unprotected by minimum workplace standards. This model has been challenged by the rise of the gig economy and use of contractor arrangements in employment-like situations.

Professor Megan Davis, in her Quarterly Essay Voice of Reason, writing about Recognition and renewal, explains some of the history of the term ‘reconciliation’. She points out that John Howard divided reconciliation into the practical and the symbolic, a false binary that endures to this day. (p.  40) Davis writes: “The practical and the symbolic are two sides of the one coin.” By drawing this distinction, Howard was able to select what fitted his policy of Indigenous-specific services. Those issues he deemed ‘symbolic’, were in fact non-symbolic matters, like land rights and constitutional recognition. (p. 41)

Binary distinctions are commonly used in skills language: specific/generic, technical/non-technical, cognitive/non-cognitive, and worst of all, ‘hard’/’soft’. Each of these terms refers to a category or group of skills, which are seen as distinct from its opposite. While these terms may be useful in helping people understand the range of skills needed in the workplace, we need to keep in mind that they have serious limitations.

Binaries ignore the complexity of skills: Binaries perpetuate a false idea of separateness and unequal value. Yet skills use, even in the most high-tech jobs, is based on using multiple skills simultaneously in situations ranging from the straightforward to the highly complex. Take communication as an example of a ‘soft’ skills category. This is an umbrella term that encompasses many sophisticated skills and for which there are training courses and degrees specialising in specific communication-related professions. It would be a rare find to identify a job that doesn’t involve using specific verbal and/or writing skills, including negotiating, influencing, collaborating, cooperating, teamwork, supervision and customer service.

Binaries ignore the interrelatedness of skills: People use their communication skills in tandem with other skills, such as problem-solving, judgement, cultural awareness, and ethical nous, and draw on knowledge, such as relevant law, safety requirements, and mechanical details to conduct their work tasks. The ‘soft’/’hard’ binary may seem like handy conceptual shorthand, but they reduce complexity and sever more nuanced analysis of how skills are interrelated and equally valuable.

Some technical skills are generic to many jobs, such as an ability to use parts of the Microsoft suite. The boundary between what are technical and non-technical skills is not clear-cut. While a fitness instructor may draw on ‘technical’ knowledge to prepare a fitness class, (such as knowledge of a range of exercises that cater for different levels of fitness and different parts of the body, safety issues, how to use equipment), if they can’t model the exercises accurately, explain them clearly, and correct others’ performance, then their ability to fulfil the role will be significantly diminished.

A solution to this issue is to rethink skills categories and distinctions, to drop using unhelpful distinctions, and to start recognising the complexities and relatedness of skills.

For additional reading on Rethinking Skills Discourse:

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.