Generalists vs. Specialists: Pros and Cons for Hiring Managers

Some companies need employees who are generalists and have a wide variety of skillsets across all departments. Others prefer team members who are specialists and experts in their specific field. Learn more about what generalists and specialists are, the pros and cons of each and how to determine which one your team should hire. 

 

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Generalist vs. specialist definitions

A generalist has a wide range of knowledge in various subjects and holds many skill sets. They often prefer to expand their knowledge by learning about the responsibilities of various jobs within a workplace. Generalists can work in many sections of a department or in several departments. They typically enjoy challenging themselves and completing different tasks each day. 

Specialists work within one field or on a single subject matter. Many of them spend time advancing their skill set and knowledge in one role to become experts in their field. They often enjoy sticking to a routine and finding ways to perform more efficiently at similar tasks. Specialists typically have advanced training in one career, but can still expand that skill set to eventually move up within that specific field. 

For example, a generalist may work in the marketing department, serving in several roles, like an analyst, coordinator, specialist and content writer for short periods of time. This helps them better understand how the marketing department functions, so they can eventually move up and oversee the entire department in a manager or director role. A specialist may work solely as a content writer for that department and will build their writing skills to become a content manager or director in that specific field. 

Related: Human Resources Strategies: A Guide for Managers

 

Pros and cons of hiring a generalist

Here are some common pros and cons of hiring a generalist: 

 

Pros

The advantages of hiring a generalist on your team include:

  • Willing to learn new skills and techniques: Generalists want to understand how to work in an abundance of different jobs, so they’re constantly willing to take on new challenges and learn new skills. If you’re looking to temporarily fill an open position, a generalist will likely volunteer to cover this role when needed.
  • Earning enough experience to become an upper-management employee: Many generalists aim to gain extensive skills and experience to help prepare them for a career as a manager or executive team member. Having knowledge and first-hand experience working in different positions makes them more qualified to guide, train and oversee employees who later serve in those same positions.
  • Holding a strong adaptability to changing environments: Since they’re constantly learning new skills in different departments, generalists often thrive off of changing environments. This means they could be well-suited for positions that require them to react calmly and rationally in high-stress or unpredictable situations. 

Related: How to Hire an HR Generalist

 

Cons 

The disadvantages of hiring a generalist on your team include:

  • Possessing a less advanced skill level: Though generalists have a wide skill set, most of them are lower-level skills, meaning they can typically only handle basic responsibilities in different roles. 
  • Spending extra time and resources training them: Since they possess a lower level of skills, you spend more time and resources training and guiding these employees to work in new positions.
  • Preferring to complete less of the same tasks every day: Generalists often enjoy working in high-paced roles where they complete different tasks each day, so they typically prefer to refrain from everyday routines. This often makes it difficult to hire generalists in roles where they complete similar tasks each day. 

 

Pros and cons of hiring a specialist 

Here are some common pros and cons of hiring a specialist:

 

Pros 

The advantages of hiring a specialist on your team include:

  • Holds advanced knowledge and skill levels in certain fields: If you need an employee to quickly start in an open position, a specialist already has the advanced skills and experience needed to complete complex tasks the role may require. This means they can finish projects quicker and help train other team members if needed.   
  • Requires less training: Hiring and onboarding specialists for certain roles is simpler when they already have the skills and expertise to complete tasks and operate certain computer programs. This means you can spend less time training them on the role and give them more time to get started contributing quality work to your company.
  • Brings in higher retention rates: Most specialists often stay at companies longer because they get to strengthen their knowledge and skill set in that specific field, which increases your organization’s retention rates. 

 

Cons 

The disadvantages of hiring a specialist on your team include:

  • Requires higher employee compensation: If your company is still starting out and doesn’t yet have the budget to pay for employees with an advanced skill set, you might not be ready for specialists. These employees often gain extensive skill levels and education, so they usually ask for higher salaries in return. 
  • Holds a lack of flexibility in roles and responsibilities: Most specialists dedicate a majority of their time to learning more about a specific field and subject matter, so they often want to stick with working in that certain area. This means they aren’t often flexible and willing to move to different departments or switch up their routine like generalists do.
  • Possesses fewer skills: Though their skills are more advanced, they often don’t have a large number of skills throughout various departments like generalists do. They usually have a smaller set of valuable skills that are only needed for their own specific job.  

 

How to decide if you need a generalist or a specialist

Follow these steps to decide if you need to onboard a generalist or a specialist: 

 

1. Determine the field you’re hiring for 

Speak with the department that needs to hire a new team member to determine their preferences for the role. Learn which skills the department manager is searching for and how advanced the candidate’s knowledge and expertise need to be. If you’re hiring a software developer, for instance, consider a specialist with advanced skills in certain software programs and coding languages. For upper-level management roles that oversee different departments, hire a generalist with experience in several office positions.

 

2. Decide on your budget

Another important factor is the budget you have to hire a new employee. Since generalists’ skill sets aren’t as advanced, they often ask for lower wages if they’re working in lower-level roles. Specialists often earn advanced degrees and certifications to receive higher compensations for their expertise. 

 

3. Consider the size of your company 

Smaller companies often hire generalists to handle a wide variety of tasks since they don’t yet have the budget to bring on a large number of employees. If you need an employee with a wide skill set to complete basic tasks, consider hiring a generalist. Medium-sized businesses that are vastly growing with several in-depth jobs and tasks available should consider hiring specialists to handle these complex responsibilities. 

Deciding whether to hire a generalist or a specialist depends on the role, your company’s needs and available tasks. Speak closely with the department head to understand the demands of the role to help you determine the best type of employee to hire.

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