Should You be a "Jack of all trades" or a Specialist?

A "jack of all trades" is an individual who is capable of accomplishing tasks in a wide range of disciplines. For example, when I was an Electronics Engineer, I would design the electronics, lay out the printed circuit board, design the mechanical components, and launch the product into production. I envied the specialists because they just did their one little thing, but they were highly paid and respected as experts.

In your own career, which is the best way to go? Should you be a "jack of all trades" or a specialist? In this article, you'll learn the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and techniques to help you succeed in whichever path you take.

What Employers Want

Employers don't want a "jack of all trades" or a specialist, they want a "specialist of all trades". They want someone who is expert in everything. Some companies will run the same job ad, seeking this super-human, for years. If they could find this "specialist of all trades", no matter how high the salary, they would save a ton of money by firing the rest of their staff.

Employers may use the phrase "jack of all trades" in the job ad, but the human resources department will filter applications based on specialist keywords, like "tax accountant" or "database programmer". If your resume mentions too many different specialties, it will filtered out as being not focused enough. It's a lot easier to get a job if you're a specialist than it is if you're a generalist.

But when the economy starts to tank, a company can't afford to have an expensive specialist sitting at their desk playing solitaire. While at the same time, the lower cost "jack of all trades" appears to be busy solving all kinds of critical problems. That's the advantage of being a generalist, no matter how slow things are, there's always problems to solve. Specialists are the first to be fired when the economy slows.

Immediately after a specialist gets fired, they will be replaced by a contractor, often the same individual.

The Stress of Being a "Jack of all trades"

Over the last several decades, business and industry have become highly technical. In order to survive, a generalist must maintain a nominal level of proficiency in a wide range of technologies. This requires a heavy sacrifice in their personal life. They keep up on their own time, without pay. That's not to say that a specialist doesn't need to spend time keeping up with the latest advances in their specialty. Companies understand a specialist's need to keep up and will often pay for the specialist's training.

Companies expect the same quality of work from the generalist as they expect from the specialist. But a generalist doesn't have the same depth of knowledge in any single discipline as a specialist. That's why the phrase is usually stated: "Jack of all trades, master of none".

This can result in the generalist making more mistakes and producing a lower quality of work. This explains why, although the "jack of all trades" may have vastly more overall skill and knowledge, they receive lower pay than the specialist.

How to Succeed as a "Jack of All Trades"

The secret to being a successful "jack of all trades" is to know your limitations. Recognize when you are capable of performimg a task good enough, and when you must call upon a specialist. There is a symbiotic relationship between generalists and specialists. Specialists often make mistakes because they don't understand how other areas effect their work.

For example, an Electronics Engineer may not understand the impact that the physical environment has on an electronic design. A design that would work perfectly in a desktop computer will fail in the dirty, humid, vibrating, electrically noisy environment of an earthmoving machine. Or the Electronics Engineer might confidently add all kinds of extra features to a product. The generalist knows the product's consumers don't need and won't pay for those extra features.

Managers do not fault a generalist when they try to tap into the expertise of a specialist, in fact, they expect and encourage it.

The generalist needs to work with the specialist with the understanding that they have no intention of undermining the specialist. They just want to tap into their brain for enough knowledge to keep themselves out of trouble. In exchange, the generalist will keep the specialist appraised of any concerns in areas outside their specialty.

How to Succeed as a Specialist

The secret to being a successful specialist is to stay focused on the narrow, but deep skills and knowledge of your specialty. Understand that many areas outside your specialty can have a major impact on your work, but any time dedicated to learning about peripheral subjects is time taken away from increasing your skills and knowledge in your specialty.

You have to deliberately define your skills pool. What areas outside your specialty will you explore and to what depth? Unlike the "jack of all trades", you understand that nobody can be an expert at everything.

Take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between a specialist and a generalist. Share any knowledge that the generalist needs to avoid making mistakes and creating a poor quality of work. In return, the generalist will share any information you need to avoid problems caused by concerns in areas outside your specialty.

Should You be a "Jack of All Trades" or a Specialist?

The generalists' range of knowledge makes them a better candidate for promotion to a supervisory or managerial position. When that happens, the generalist may not understand that in addition to the high stress of being expected to know everything technical, they will now be subjected to the stress of being involved in corporate politics. Whereas they became a "Jack of all trades" because of their love of science and technology, now they need to become an expert at "covering their ass", "back stabbing", and other political games.

If an individual, who became a "jack of all trades" because of their love of science and technology, refuses to accept a promotion to a supervisory or managerial position, they will be considered to be "lacking in ambition" and will not be receiving any future meaningful salary increases.

The specialist is usually not considered for promotion to a supervisory or manager position because they are considered too important in their specialty. And that's okay, because they receive more respect and higher salary than most supervisors and managers. However, if business slows down, they may be one of the first employees to get fired.

Because specialists are expensive, their job may be subject to outsourcing. If it's possible to outsource your work, closely monitor the outsourcing trend in your specialty.

Which is better, to be a generalist or a specialist? A "jack of all trades" is under higher stress and greater probability of being pushed into a supervisory or managerial position. Specialists receive more respect and higher salaries. If your specialty is one that is unlikely to be outsourced, it's definitely better to be a specialist.

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