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Defining ‘Skill’ and ‘Competence’

What do we mean by “skills” and “competences”? The terms are often used interchangeably. Some definitions are provided here to help to bring clarity to the work of the JRC in this area. 

The concepts of skills and competences are often used interchangeably. However, based on the 2018 Council Recommendation on Key Competences for Life-long Learning, competences (not to be confused with competencies) refer to “...a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes, where: a) knowledge is composed of the facts and figures, concepts, ideas and theories which are already established and support the understanding of a certain area or subject; b) skills are defined as the ability and capacity to carry out processes and use the existing knowledge to achieve results; c) attitudes describe the disposition and mind-sets to act or react to ideas, persons or situations”.  

Importantly, competences are not applicable only in the context of education. In fact, it has become clear that competences can be acquired throughout the whole life-cycle, hence raising the importance of adult learning and, more generally, of training.

Unified framework

To support research and policymaking in skills, the JRC has developed concepts and definitions in a unified framework for the analysis of occupations, tasks, skills and competences. 

The JRC aims to bring conceptual clarity to its work in this by providing clear concepts and definitions in relation to skills and associated policy concerns such as skills gaps.  

Definition of Skills and Competences

The concept of skill – reflecting ability and capacity – is not limited to a specific domain, activity, subject, or area. In fact, it is an inherently horizontal concept (i.e.: physical vs cognitive vs non-cognitive skills). At the same time, skills have a hierarchical structure: a worker can be more skilled than another one and a job can require higher levels or a more complex combination of skills than another one. Interestingly, if we think that all activities can be defined in terms of tasks (and each occupation is a special aggregation of tasks), skills can be interpreted as the ability and capacity required to perform those tasks. In essence, while tasks define the “production process” from the demand side, skills represent the same process from the supply side. In this view, skills are very close to the concept of human capital, often used in the economics literature.  

Skills may be defined as the ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve useful problems, typically in the workplace.  

Competences can be defined as broader attributes that refer to an ability to use knowledge, skills social and/or methodological abilities in work or study situations and in professional and personal development. Competence is not limited to the cognitive area; it also encompasses functional/technical areas, interpersonal skills and values.  

The usage of the term skills also varies by sector, discipline or industry and it variously refers to: 

  1. tasks of a specific trade (ability to master the content, method and tools of a specific job or production process).  
  2. an occupational classifier, as in “high-skilled” vs “low-skilled”.   
  3. a learning objective or curriculum goal.  
  4. a latent individual attribute that is valuable in the labour market (human capital).   
  5. an expansive metonym for professional qualification, occupation, or industry (e.g., “green skills”).  

Under all these connotations, skills are understood as individual attributes, related to work, which have value and can usually be learned.  


JRC-P21-EDU-SKILLS-EMPLatec [dot] europa [dot] eu (JRC-P21-EDU-SKILLS-EMPL[at]ec[dot]europa[dot]eu) 

To find out more about the JRC's work on similar topics, explore the related JRC portfolios: