Are You an Expert or Jack of All Trades?

Becoming highly skilled at a specialty niche or dabbling in a variety of skills are both valid career paths. You just have to find what best suits you.

Are You an Expert or Jack of All Trades?

Anja Smith

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Let’s picture your skill set and professional knowledge as a trench.

Like in real life, trenches take on different shapes and sizes, deep and narrow or wide and shallow. In this analogy, an “experts” trench is deep and narrow. They “go deep” on a single track or idea. A “jack of all trades” (JT for short), on the other hand, might have a wide and narrow trench, scratching the surface on many topics.

Setting aside OSHA safety regulations in this analogy, is it better to have an “expert” trench or a “JT” trench of knowledge? Let’s dig in (pun 100% intended) to discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Experts Trench

With the rise of technology and access to information, experts are disappearing. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that subject mastery is achieved after 10,000 hours of focused practice. That is the equivalent of roughly five full-time years of work. Few of today's working adults work in one place, much less on one skill, long enough to achieve mastery. Statistics say that between 25 and 34 years of age, the average person changes careers 2.4 times.

No wonder experts are disappearing along with attention spans.

If you are one of the few who has the personality, stability, and persistence to become a master, it is possible your expertise will become valuable thanks to scarcity. The key, then, to finding success relies on finding a high-demand niche to concentrate on and knowing how to market that skill appropriately on the job market.

For example, where I live in South Carolina, we are in desperate need of leak detection experts. For the longest time there was One Guy (OG). OG had the skills, equipment, experience, and expertise. He was right way more often than he was wrong.

OG tried training some guys up behind him, but no one stuck with it or displayed his talent. Now OG is retired and all the contractors in this area are playing whack-a-mole with slab leaks.

As this example demonstrates, specialization and expertise still have a place in this world. But it doesn’t come with any guarantees. With this path, you may struggle with issues like product-market fit and scalability issues. Let’s break these down.

Product-market fit requires a bit of luck or future-telling. It’s the idea that you can have the best product or service in the world, but it doesn’t matter if no one wants to buy it. Does anyone remember when Segways were supposed to revolutionize personal transportation? Now they are relegated to tourist traps and mall cops.

In other words, you are investing in five years of skill building hoping technology or trends don’t displace your skills. A new piece of leak detection equipment may hit the market tomorrow making it easy enough for a first-year apprentice to locate a pinprick leak 6 feet under a slab. Suddenly, no one cares that OG retired.

Scalability is a question of capacity to grow. Expertise is usually valuable at the technical level, meaning there is always an element of trading time for money — a classic earning restraint. Unless you are also an inventor or teacher, you are unlikely to become wealthy this way.

In most cases there’s a limit on what people will pay for technical skills. If your technical expertise is physically demanding, your risk increases. If you rely on your physical well-being to earn a living, you must plan carefully for injury, illness, and old age.

The JT Trench

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” The availability of information in the internet era has made this a popular — and potentially dangerous — idea. Some people spend a few hours on YouTube and think they are a JT.

That’s scratching the surface, not digging a shallow trench. Becoming a real JT means achieving basic competency on lots of skills, not just learning the lingo. This is an important distinction that most plumbers and drain cleaners will understand well. You can’t read the code book and call yourself a plumber. Until you get hands on experience, it's all theory.

Still, the JT path is a popular one these days with employers. Job consolidation is a huge trend as the cost of doing business and the push for profit increase pressure on managers. What used to be the job of three people is now one — along with the expectation of competency in all areas and functions. 

Considering short attention spans and that most 18 to 24 year olds change careers 5.7 times during that age range, it's obvious this is the path for most people. Staying within an industry can provide a lot of benefit, particularly for those who aspire to management or business-building.

With a well-written resume and a solid network, the JT can look around until they find a role that will grow with them. That may be as a field technician, project manager for large contracting, manufacturer’s rep, supply house counter sales, or any one of hundreds of other roles in the industry.

As long as the JT stays curious and is always willing to say “yes” to new opportunities, they can find success. The tricky part can be knowing when to speak up and how to position yourself so you aren’t starting over every time you change roles. 

The plumbing and drain cleaning world is seeing innovation and change as quickly as any other industry. There is no wrong way to build your metaphorical trench — so long as you respect OSHA when it comes to digging the real ones.

About the Author

Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupstate.com.



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