Why being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is a good thing

In today’s job market, being able to adapt to changes in the work environment and develop transferable skills can help you weather a difficult period. Photo: Getty
In today’s job market, being able to adapt to changes in the work environment and develop transferable skills can help you weather a difficult period. Photo: Getty

For years, we’ve used the idiom “jack of all trades, master of none” as a negative. Picking a specific skill and learning to master it is believed to be more important to a successful career, than being able to turn your hand to a number of tasks.

But in today’s job market, being a generalist might not be such a bad thing. The coronavirus lockdown and record-breaking economic downturn has brought a huge number of businesses to a standstill, which has led to a surge of redundancies.

And the uncertainty of the future of some industries, such as travel, has forced many people to reconsider their employment options entirely. While specialising is never a bad thing, being able to adapt to changes in the work environment and develop transferable skills can help you weather a difficult period.

“I look at it in two ways,” says Emma Louise O’Brien, an award winning career coach from Renovo, the outplacement support specialists. “First, if you’re returning to work after furlough, having many skills is really important — and is potentially very useful for an employer. 

READ MORE: What are ‘interpersonal skills’ and why do employers look out for them?

“Your role may now look different, your employer may have had to make specific roles redundant or they may have reshaped the services or products offered to customers,” she adds. “This means they may lean on existing employees to pick this up. Demonstrating that you’re not just a specialist — so maybe you’re in an IT role but your personal interest is in social media or creative marketing — then this could be incredibly useful.”

Secondly, being a jack of all trades can be about futureproofing your career — which is particularly useful for anyone job hunting right now.

“Understand where you can use your skills both in the short and long term,” O’Brien says. “I’m seeing more people exploring portfolio careers which means working multiple jobs. Their career ‘anchor’ for example maybe marketing, however if there are no jobs locally they may need to consider other skills they could use in the short term.”

READ MORE: How coronavirus can help you achieve switching careers

If someone enjoys driving and route planning, exploring a driving position with DPD or Amazon for a few hours a week could be a consideration. This is logical, plus there is a greater demand for delivery drivers whilst customers continue to buy online.

“Overall, it’s about looking at the wider picture and using other skills that you may not typically use in your work,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be a long term career move but it is important to keep all options open and understand where the demand is to match your skills accordingly.”

How to develop your transferable skills

Online learning is an obvious opportunity to upskill after you’ve re-evaluated the skills you may need. When job searching, look at what skills employers want that you don’t yet have. The National Careers Service has a useful guide to free online learning.

Heading back to university part-time or doing a course is a good way to boost your skill set, but this isn’t an option for everyone. However, it’s important to remember that you will have many transferable skills — even if you don’t realise it. If you’ve got experience of working in customer service roles, you may be a good communicator. If you’ve been running your own business, you may be excellent at organising, admin or problem-solving.

Think about your previous or current role and the skills or abilities it requires. Try to be open-minded about where you could apply these skills if you needed to. It doesn’t have to be a long-term career change, but it may give you more options if you find yourself temporarily out of work.

READ MORE: How to realistically completely change jobs during the pandemic

O’Brien says another, less obvious way to learn is to identify people in your network or community who can mentor you. “Do you know someone who is good at something and can help you? Perhaps public speaking or IT skills? There are many people who want to do something useful, especially now,” she says. “This might be helpful if you’ve been asked to do something in a new role too. It may be easier to ask your network as they may have more time to offer you plus you can do it in confidence.”

There are also other ways to self-develop that utilise your time productively too, such as volunteering.

“See what’s happening in your community — are there any charities that need support, or a local town or village that needs extra hands for an event? Doing this not only expands your skills, it builds relationships and your network, increasing opportunities for longer term career aspirations,” says O’Brien.

“It’s also a good idea to take on temporary work to gain new skills. Go to recruitment agencies as they may be backfilling roles that were made redundant as a result of the pandemic and may need help immediately. That not only helps with income, but expands skills.”

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