It’s an oft-heard figure of speech, and be honest, the context in which you hear it generally comes with negative connotations.
Jack of all trades. You’re good / competent / adequate / satisfactory (delete as appropriate) at many things without being a master of one.
Is this actually true though, and can these employees become a master of one industry? Let’s take a look.
What is a Jack of all trades?
Let’s get the specifics out of the way first: Jack of all trades is used to reference somebody who has gained a number of skills throughout their career but hasn’t focused on one (which is where the master of none comes from – obviously).
For all you history aficionados out there – and for anybody who can relate to not knowing their next career move – a little-known playwright called William Shakespeare was dismissively referred to as a jack of all trades.
And he did just fine.
What are the reasons for being a Jack of all trades?
Now we’ve got the short history lesson out of the way, it’s worth exploring the reasons why people feel they have a range of different skills without specialising in one.
Employees in the job market all have unique experiences; some come out of university with a defined – or not – career path, others gain college qualifications and set out into the world of work, while some are part of the workforce by their 16th birthday.
Everybody is different. Some people will grow up knowing exactly what they want to do and can work towards it. For the rest, it isn’t as cut and dry a decision.
This can lead to job hopping. While this can be seen as a disadvantage, it could conversely help you to refine what you want to do as well as give you new experiences along the way.
However, the flipside is that although the skills accrued are plentiful, they don’t focus intently on one or two – it leads to not being a master of any.
Education and careers advice
Hands up how many people have come out of college or university after studying subjects you were good at rather than for the reason they’d lead to a career? *Hand in the air*
It is an extension of uncertainty, but for many, there isn’t a set career path. Of course, certain A-levels and degrees give the holder of these a number of options. English, mathematics, and history are just three examples that can open doors into the world of work.
The problem comes when you’re thrust into making choices if there isn’t a long-term career destination.
It’s a particularly stressful time and if you were one of those who didn’t have a strong career path, or simply didn’t know what to do, it meant getting a job – any job – became the priority.
Whilst this can lead to new opportunities, there’s also a very good chance that you’ll take a role that doesn’t satisfy you in the long term, although still learning new skills.
The road to Jack-of-all-trades-dom has started!
We’re not handing out Bletchley Park discoveries here but, because of this, it’s imperative to make as much use of careers advice as possible. There are so many resources out there – take advantage in order to help you find the career and job you want.
Not considered a specialist in any trade / industry
It’s a vicious cycle really. You have worked in a job, for a company that allows you to experience many areas, but the particular skill you need to progress your career is one you don’t work on enough to strengthen at this place of work.
Let’s say a vacancy is advertised that asks for a certain level of experience, and the candidate has some, but not lots of work experience in this field.
In this instance, it usually means the vacancy remains tantalisingly out of reach.
And while having the plethora of skills accrued as a jack of all trades is useful, the jump to specialise on one particular aspect is still too far.
We’re generalising here, but this seems to be the case in smaller companies; it’s not as easy to specialise when a tightly-knit team works together. You’ll be asked to turn your hand to a few things, which negate chances to specialise in one.
Some of the professionals we spoke to – specialists in their chosen field – can relate to these experiences.
Becky Carre, a Senior PPC Account Executive at Impression – an award winning digital marketing agency – likened her early career experiences to “spinning plates.”
She said: “As my career progressed, I was trying to take on a range of digital marketing responsibilities so started to feel like I was spinning plates. I lacked focus and wasn’t exercising my creativity because I was being pulled in too many directions.”
“Small businesses – and startup companies in particular – may not necessarily have the revenue to hire specialist after specialist; instead, they need to rely on team players who can do more than one thing.”
That experience isn’t too dissimilar to that of Becky Yardley, Senior PR Executive at specialist search, social and web agency, Bring Digital.
Early in her career, working for a small team provided great opportunities which she grabbed with both hands, but it meant “taking on more and more varied tasks.”
“I found that I was making good progress in my old role and taking on a lot of responsibility because the team was quite small, it meant I was unable to specialise,” she said.
“As I progressed I became more and more stretched across different departments.“
However, having a wide and varied role with different tasks is actually a good thing.
What are the benefits of being a Jack of all trades?
Rather than focusing on the negatives, let’s look at the positives! A JOAT-er (it’ll never catch on) is extremely employable.
“As a CEO of a startup, I love Jacks of all trades. Anyone who joins a fast growing early stage startup joins on the basis they will do a little of everything.”
Small businesses – and startup companies in particular – may not necessarily have the revenue to hire specialist after specialist; instead, they need to rely on team players who can do more than one thing.
More than 99% of private businesses in the UK are defined as small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and we’re living in a country that is seeing more companies start up than ever before.
In 2016, 637,918 new businesses were registered with Companies House – a 5% increase on 2015.
At the time of writing, more than 140,000 startups have been created this year. It’s reasonable to assume that they would benefit from employees with many different skills rather than just one.
Rachel Carrell is the founder and CEO of Koru Kids, a startup business in its first year. She believes a jack of all trades adds great value to a business.
She explained: “As a CEO of a startup, I love Jacks of all trades. Anyone who joins a fast growing early stage startup joins on the basis they will do a little of everything.
“As the business grows, they then need to grow with it. I’ve seen employees of startups act like a sponge – attending training, shadowing, working on difficult projects, throwing themselves into things.
“These ones really thrive. They try out lots of different mini-roles and find out what suits them.”
How to become Jack of all trades and master of one
Although not always easy, shifting your focus onto a specific career path can be done for those who feel they have many skills but haven’t mastered one.
In fact, it’s worth remembering that the experience you already have in the bank stands you in good stead already.
Here’s what you need to do …
Identify what you want to do
The first step, really. If you don’t know what you actually aspire to do, how can you even begin to readjust your focus accordingly?
What makes you happy? What skills do you have that you want to utilise in a specialist position? There has to be clarity on these questions before you can move on to that dream job.
As glib as this sounds, there’s no doubt this isn’t a stroll in the park. Bring Digital’s Becky Yardley actually described it as an extremely difficult process.
“The most difficult part is working out what you actually enjoy doing and want to do, and tailoring your CV to match that.”
In many ways, working as a jack of all trades can be advantageous because it allows the employee to have a taste of many different types of work, which can help to give a clearer picture of what they like and are good at.
It is something that Becky Carre at Impression used to full advantage. Before specialising in PPC, her career involved working on a range of different marketing roles; email marketing, copywriting, drafting press releases, helping with organic social media, and content management were just some of her responsibilities.
What it did was allow her to find her specialism and broaden her skill set – a huge benefit of being a jack of all trades.
She said: “Although I wasn’t a specialist in any of these things, it gave me the chance to try it all before deciding what I really enjoyed and where I could best use my skill set.”
Finding what you want to do is the first, and in many ways, the most important step; one that you have to get right.
Understand the industry you want to move into
You’ve identified the specialism you want to move into. Aces! Part one of the checklist ticked off. At this point, it is important to become as much of an expert as possible in your chosen field.
How can this be achieved? Keeping abreast of the latest news, attending events and marrying these with the host of skills you’ve already obtained will go a long way to assisting your application.
Becky Yardley is a Senior Digital PR Executive who previously covered all aspects of marketing, including print advertising, SEO and social media.
After identifying that she wanted to focus in the digital industry, Becky’s transition was successful because she was prepared to take a slight backwards step in terms of job role to increase her chances of learning, and she focused relentlessly on her chosen industry.
“I think with a bit of focus, it is easy to make the transition, if you keep up to date with industry news, blogs and events in the area you want to specialise in, and if you demonstrate the skills you learnt are really transferrable, then you will be fine at interview stage.”
Keeping up to speed with your preferred industry can also help point you in the right direction.
At Impression, Becky Carre worked on a variety of different projects – experience that helped her see the bigger picture about the way in which the sector was heading.
She explained: “I could see the way the industry was going. Five years ago, working in digital marketing was enough to be considered a specialist, whereas I could see the landscape of the industry changing and that if I wanted to continue to progress my career, it was necessary to take a specialist route within the digital marketing sector.”
By making sure you’re aware of the industry around you and the potential changes within it, you’re putting yourself in a solid position to progress into a specialist role.
Accentuate your skills
Yes, you need to look at making changes to become a specialist. And yes you need to look at ways to get some – any – experience in your desired field.
But along the way, don’t forget what made you employable in the first place. Using initiative to sense the opportunities is vital but as a jack of all trades, don’t forget you’re already pretty great and have a great number of attributes already.
These can be harnessed to your advantage.
A Jack of all trades will have displayed adaptability to work on a wide range of jobs. This requires a real commitment to learning too, which is extremely attractive to employers.
As mentioned previously, if you can show that the skills you’ve built up throughout your career are transferrable, it will help the transition to a specialist role.
Some of those seen as a ‘master of one’ trade won’t have the flexibility or adaptability shown by a jack of all trades, nor will they have the same level of versatility to undertake different tasks.
There are so many strengths in insight, knowledge and experience gained – turn these into positives that others won’t have!
A Jack of all trades can become a master of one if they really want to. Is it an easy process? Evidently not, but the ability to do so is there; you have to be certain about what you want as well as making yourself as much of an expert as possible in your desired field.
But it’s worth remembering along the way that the whole ‘master of none’ turn of phrase can discount the broad and great skill set that you’ve already built up.
This skill set can and should be used to your advantage.