Generalist Vs. Specialist: Things to Know Before You Hire Them 

April 18, 2023

Introduction:  

 Human resource professionals face endless challenges in hiring the right candidates, especially while determining whether to hire an expert or a generalist for a role. Today’s increasingly volatile and evolving business space has led to the need for more dynamic talents and work models. In addition, hiring the right resource has become crucial for the success of your organization. 

According to a McKinsey survey, 87% of leaders acknowledged a skill gap in their workforce. It is mainly due to specializations in specific areas and not being fluid in other areas. As a result, generalist employees are the right fit for such skill gaps.  

 

Who is a Generalist? 

Generalists have a wide spectrum of skills and knowledge with various interests and hobbies. If you are at a leadership level in an organization, your preferable skills would be a generalist, as you are required to perform several tasks across multiple teams. For example, a marketing head might be a generalist as it requires deep knowledge about various roles in marketing. 

 

Who is a Specialist? 

A specialist is a subject matter expert in a specific field, role, or practice. The individual gains extensive knowledge of a specific niche and focuses on a certain area. Business organizations hire specialists to lead projects that require the latest technological development. 

 

Pros & Cons of Generalists Vs. Specialists

Some business organizations hire employees who are generalists with a wide variety of skill sets. Others prefer specialists in their specific fields. Let’s learn more about the pros and cons of hiring generalists and specialists.  

 

Pros of being a generalist:

1. Embrace challenges: Generalists are exposed to several subjects, which opens them to challenges that build their leadership skills. They develop critical thinking and excellent team collaboration skills that are more transferrable. 

2. Best fit for startups/smaller organizations: When organizations operate on a less budget, generalists are the best fit as they can multitask. So it’s better to hire a generalist instead of hiring several people for specific tasks. . Being open to various challenges helps them acquire strong critical thinking skills 

3. Leadership roles: Generalists are good at providing guidance as they are exposed to various topics with leadership skills and multi-tasking abilities. They are preferred most for leadership roles and have a wider approach to thinking, which helps to find better solutions. 

 

Cons of being a generalist: 

 1. Lacks expertise: Generalists have less time to invest in one particular skill as they juggle multiple responsibilities. As a result, they need assistance from subject matter experts while working on specific niche projects. 

2. Lack of job security: Generalists are more easily replaced than specialists. However, it is easier for them to grab another job due to the multiple skills.   

 3. Lower pay scale:  Often, the generalist role is available in industries with lower pay scale. It also lacks job security due to imprecise work responsibilities. In addition, organizations can replace them easily as their skills aren’t unique.  

 

 Pros of being a specialist: 

 1. Better pay:  Specialists are highly paid. They are harder to fill or replace so companies usually retain specialists with lucrative packages. 

 2. Minimum Training:  Specialists are experts in their fields, so the learning curve isn’t steep. The responsibilities of their role don’t usually change rapidly.  Therefore, organizations can fit specialists into the available roles right from the start. 

 3. Specific knowledge: Specialists dedicate their time and energy to learning and implementing the knowledge they learn in their fields. This experience provides an edge while executing projects with new technological developments. 

 4. Reduced competition: Specialists are rare and face lesser competition in their roles than generalists. Very few people put their time and effort in developing a specific skill.   

 

Cons of being a specialist: 

 1. Staying up to date: Specialists are required to keep updating their skills with the latest developments in their field. The advent of technology has led to changing trends and consumer behaviours in various industries. If specialists fail to upskill, they may be at risk in their careers For instance, the invention of automatic switchboards resulted in switchboard operators finding alternative employment. 

 2. Limited Opportunities: The journey towards becoming an expert will make specialists forego advancing their skills in other domains. This results in limiting the number of career opportunities they identify in the market. 

 3. Fewer skill sets. Specialists have deep knowledge in their domain; however, they don’t possess wide-ranging skills that will benefit other departments in an organization. 

 

Generalist and Specialist Examples:  

 1. A writer working in-line with online marketing concepts like SEO, keyword suggestion, and other niche concepts would be considered a generalist, who will contribute to various industries. Whereas a specialist writer might have a distinct portfolio, writing technical copy that demands deep domain knowledge. 

 2. In the healthcare industry, a general physician is considered a generalist, offering necessary insight into various potential health issues. There are doctors such as cardiovascular surgeons or neurosurgeons, dealing with specific body parts, who are considered as specialists. 

 

Generalist vs. Specialist Salary 

Generally, specialists grab high paying jobs in their fields as they are experts in their domain. While generalists might not match the salaries of specialists, they usually attract a wide range of job opportunities. According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary of a generalist in human resources is $59,333, and that of a specialist in talent acquisition is $77,903.  

 

Conclusion 

When it comes to hiring a generalist or specialist, the primary aspect depends on the detailed analysis of various paraments such as scope of responsibilities, project outcomes, candidate experience & expertise, and market demand for the role.   

 Generalists have diverse skills in various domains, whereas specialists hold expertise in a specific area and are considered as subject matter experts. The pros and cons of both generalists and specialists are considered, concerning the candidate’s skills and potential. . As such, HR professionals should seek to make informed decisions while hiring for critical roles that involve generalists or specialists. 

 

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