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

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

By Stephen Bucaro

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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Resource Box:
Copyright(C)2005 Bucaro TecHelp. To learn how to maintain
your computer and use it more effectively to design a Web
site and make money on the Web visit bucarotechelp.com
To subscribe to Bucaro TecHelp Newsletter visit
http://bucarotechelp.com/search/000800.asp
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About the Author

Copyright(C)2005 Bucaro TecHelp. To learn how to maintain
your computer and use it more effectively to design a Web
site and make money on the Web visit bucarotechelp.com
To subscribe to Bucaro TecHelp Newsletter visit
http://bucarotechelp.com/search/000800.asp

 

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