Knowledge, skills, and abilities are often referred to as “KSAs.” They are part of many methods used to analyze jobs and work for purposes such as staffing and vocational counseling. All three terms concern human attributes needed to complete work tasks successfully. In other words, KSAs are cognitive and psychomotor informational digests and processes stored in memory that people need to succeed at work. The first two of these, knowledge and skills, are largely developed through life experiences, often through hard work. The third, abilities, are thought to be relatively enduring capacities of an individual that are helpful in developing knowledge and skills. The acquisition of knowledge and skills is the main goal of education and training. Abilities typically predict who will benefit most from a certain kind of training. Measures of all three factors are often used by employers to inform decisions about whom to hire, because employers are looking to hire the people who know the most, can do the best job, and can be most easily trained to do the work.
Knowledge is mostly concerned with the “what” of a task. Things that one learns from books, structured demonstrations, trial and error, and classrooms are most often knowledge. Knowledge is commonly thought of as factual and procedural information as well as action sequences kept in the head mainly for brain work but also to execute skilled activities. For example, most people reading this already know the meaning of a large number of words in English and the names of the capitals of most states in the United States. The knowledge that is most commonly associated with careers usually belongs to a specific discipline, such as chemistry, forestry, music, cooking, or graphic design. Knowledge that is helpful for a career comes from both general education and specific vocational preparation. Many jobs, for example, require one to read and write (general education). To be able to read and write, however, one must know the meaning of many commonly used words. Most jobs also require additional specific knowledge (e.g., cell biology). Thus, in addition to general knowledge, one would need specific knowledge of, for example, cell biology to read a technical report on cloning and write an evaluation of the report.
Skills are more closely associated with using the body than with using the head. Motor skills allow one to do things quickly and relatively effortlessly, such as shifting gears or using the steering wheel while driving a car, truck, or forklift. Other examples include operating a sewing machine, tying a knot, or properly serving a tennis ball into the court. Perceptual skills may also be developed. Examples of visual perception include color perception used for picking custom colors for interior design, and contrast and brightness perception needed for video camera operation. Sound perception is used for tasks such as analyzing the performance of an orchestra. Many heavy equipment jobs require both motor skills and perceptual skills (especially depth perception), such as moving pallets with a forklift or landing an aircraft.
Most skills are very specific to a job or occupation. Experience in landing an airplane, for example, is not particularly helpful in using a forklift to load a truck, nor is such experience particularly helpful in docking a ship. Such is the case even though all the previously mentioned tasks involve using the hands and feet to cause large machines to move in certain ways. For a rather different example, skill in rolling cigars will not prove terribly helpful in playing the piccolo, even though both tasks involve skilled movements of the fingers. Skill acquisition is typically rather slow in developing, especially for difficult tasks such as playing the violin or figure skating. For this reason, highly skilled performance is usually found in people who have practiced the skill in question for months or years.
Abilities are relatively enduring, mainly intellectual capacities that distinguish one person from another. An ability long studied by psychologists is cognitive ability, which is related to how quickly and how well people learn new material. The two most commonly assessed distinct cognitive abilities are verbal and mathematical (quantitative) abilities. There are other, more specialized cognitive abilities, such as space relations and the ability to solve anagrams. Other abilities may be thought of as talents, such as musical ability, artistic ability (ability to draw or paint), and the ability to dance. There are several different systems for describing and analyzing different human abilities. Abilities are special characteristics that allow people to become good at tasks quickly compared with other people. Some people show particular facility in reading and understanding a book on philosophy, while others can quickly learn to play the piano, others to paint well, and still others to figure-skate gracefully. People with special ability are said to be “naturals” at some tasks. Unlike skills and specialized knowledge, the same ability can often be used for different tasks. For example, someone gifted in verbal ability might be a good poet or a good lawyer. Someone with musical talent might become a good speech pathologist, orchestral soloist, or acoustical engineer.
KSAs are sometimes called KSAOs because people want to refer to “knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics.” “Other characteristics” can be thought of as capacities or work habits. For example, one might imagine the capacity to resist monotony. In a very repetitious task, such as putting golf balls into packages or loading boxes onto trucks, many people become bored and fatigued. Others are resistant to monotony and do not seem to mind doing the same thing over and over (musicians also need some of this capacity because they have to practice the same piece many times). “Other characteristics” include personality traits (e.g., punctual, persistent, courageous, unconventional) and describe how people typically behave. However, like abilities, “other characteristics” are thought to be relatively enduring individual-difference characteristics; that is, they meaningfully distinguish people in ways that are useful to know when one is considering the fit of an individual for a job or for a career.
- Banks, M. H. 1988. “Job Components Inventory.” Pp. 960-990 in The Job Analysis Handbook for Business, Industry, and Government, II, edited by S. Gael. New York: Wiley.
- Brannick, M. T. and Levine, E. L. 2002. Job Analysis: Methods, Research, and Applications for Human Resource Management in the New Millennium. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Fleishman, E. A. and Reilly, M. E. 1992. Handbook of Human Abilities: Definitions, Measurements, and Job Task Requirements. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Peterson, N. G., Mumford, M. D., Borman, W. C., Jeanneret, P. R. and Fleishman, E. A., eds. 1999. An Occupational Information System for the 21st Century: The Development of O*NET. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.