The famous term “Jack of all trades” appears to have originated in 17th century England, but literary evidence suggests that the second half of the phrase (“master of none”) came later, perhaps in the 19th century, when the first Industrial Revolution was making itself felt. In more recent times – notably during the contemporary Age of the Digital Revolution – it’s a phrase that’s acquired certain negative connotations, implying that the person so designated lacks in-depth knowledge and instead possesses a superficial but broad repertoire of ‘handy’ skills.
Early usage suggests, however, that the term was rarely used pejoratively: one form the phrase took, for example, was “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
This suggested that a pragmatic generalist could often prove more versatile and adaptable than a narrow specialist.
The purpose of this article is to show that, while there remains room for both ‘Jacks’ and ‘Masters’ in today’s advanced employment market, the demand for specialist knowledge and ability has grown extraordinarily vigorously. Those with the intellectual ability and requisite work ethic may do well to “upskill” in one of the more sought-after workplace specialisms if they want well-remunerated and continually progressing careers.
From the Age of Jack to the Age of Master
In the Middle Ages, when most people worked on the land and “technology” consisted largely of shovels, wheelbarrows, and forks, manual human labor was what the feudal baron was principally interested in. It didn’t really matter much for the common folk which of them was the more intelligent and nimbler of thought; muscle power and endurance were the chief qualities needed for survival.
A “Jack” of all trades referred to the common person who could, by using common sense and practical reasoning, deploy a limited set of technological tools to a wide array of purposes. Back then, that was a most desirable capability.
But with the rise of the first Industrial Revolution, things began to change. Mobile, waged workers who were prepared to move to emerging cities (as opposed to feudal peasants tied permanently to a plot of land) were required to operate machinery, and new skills were in demand to make this predominantly steam-powered technology function properly. The first glimpses of the advanced skill-set specializations we see today were beginning to appear.
Today, for example, supply chains themselves have become almost unimaginably complex, requiring specialist knowledge and skill, as global trade has become within reach of more and more enterprises. And, as businesses and business environments have grown in size, reach, and complexity, the older era of “Owner-Manager” capitalism has given way to an army of specialized managers and workers.
The reason? Because the sheer scale of contemporary enterprises with a multinational/global reach has made it increasingly impossible for any one individual to command all the knowledge of every aspect of commercial functioning for such a business.
Let’s move on to explore why this trend toward workplace specialization should be embraced. Clue: it helps increase productivity and competitive advantage.
How specialization in the workplace boosts competitive advantage
With the rise of digital technology and the reliance modern-day businesses have on vast pools of digital data and internet communications, old words have acquired new meanings. For example, back in the days of the company “Owner-Manager” referred to above, “security” largely meant keeping physical premises and physical document-filing systems containing sensitive commercial information safe and locked against intruders.
Today, as information has increasingly moved into digital media for storage and distribution, a new professional species of “cyber-security” expert has become an absolute necessity.
Modern businesses can no longer survive and grow without new specialist employees bringing a specific but deep pool of expertise to the table. Let’s look at one example where such specialization leads to significantly improved productivity and efficiency: the hospital.
Division of Labor in a Modern Hospital
A senior hospital manager would not wish to have surgeons using their time to, for instance, take patient histories or administer medications. Their level of education and expertise (and their high salaries) are much more efficiently deployed exclusively on their unique specialism, leaving history-taking and drug administration to nurses.
Similarly, our senior manager would not wish to deploy nurses to move patients from one place to another in the hospital. Hospital orderlies do that because a nurse’s skills are fully utilized when they are concentrating on what they’ve been carefully trained to do: nursing.
These task differentiations amount to a division of labor based on the specialist knowledge the employee has acquired. In other words, the efficiency of this hospital is maximized by reserving the most complex and difficult tasks for those with the highest educational and skill levels.
The Benefits of Specialization
Once-fashionable business folklore held that productivity would increase if employees were expected to multitask (i.e., cover a broad range of different tasks during their daily work).
But psychological studies have well and truly debunked this notion: multitasking forces people to switch attention rapidly between two (or even more) different tasks – but such constant switching means that each task only receives a few seconds of attention at a time, impairing the worker’s ability to perceive important information.
Andit’s now clear that switching from one object of perception to another always involves additional time for refocusing on the “other” task.
Specialization is the “cure” for this; workers feel less stressed and more fulfilled when completing a focused task to the best of their abilities. Distributing attention over multiple tasks is inefficientand can play a part in mounting employee dissatisfaction and eventual “burnout”, an outcome that badly dents productivity rather than boosting it.
Constantly practicing a unique area of specialist skill hones the expertise of the employee performing the task. The more they do – especially when they’re highly trained and highly credentialled individuals commanding excellent salaries – the more adept and productive they become.
And the good news is that, notwithstanding the salary, the greater the output per (specialized) employee, the less it costs to produce one unit of that output. In other words, if the cost per unit of output falls because the output volume has increased within a given time window, a company can grow and achieve a significant economy of scale.
Henry Ford understood this when he implemented this specialized division of labor in his early car manufacturing endeavors. Instead of getting his employees to build each car from start to finish, he split the assembly of every automobile into no fewer than 84 separate stages.
Workers repeated the same skilled tasks time and time again, acquiring incredible precision and speed in their unique areas as they did so. It was far faster to assemble cars in this stage-by-specialized-stage fashion than putting a whole car together in a single sequential operation.
When he implemented his division of labor model, he slashed the time needed to assemble an automobile from 12 hours to 90 minutes!
Specialization of labor – and the sheer global scale at which many larger enterprises and organizations operate – has inevitably generated demand for managerial and business administration specializations. We’ve already mentioned the growing demand for supply chain managers and cybersecurity managers.
There are plenty of others as well, each presiding over a specific field of expertise (e.g., chief procurement officers, social media managers, chief technology officers, chief finance officers – each playing a crucial role for the business in which they operate).
It’s hardly surprising, then, to find demand for specialized MBA programs rising strongly. As the complexity of the division of skills has grown, so has the nature of the Master of Business Administration degree.
Happily, employees who can discern this trend and wish to capitalize on it by getting credentialed and switching careers no longer have to face the (often impossible) choice of giving up work to study full-time at a brick-and-mortar university campus.
Established centers of higher educational excellence like Walsh University have developed a range of specialized MBA programs that allow people with full-time work commitments (and family duties) to study an MBA entirely online from the comfort of their own homes.
In the modern world of commerce, there’s no escaping specialization for those who wish to progress in their career prospects and earn a generous income in the process. Adam Smith, the Father of Modern Economics, presciently predicted in his great “Wealth of Nations” book of 1763 that the division of labor into different specialisms would increase productivity and growth. Subsequent centuries, and perhaps especially the early decades of the 21st, have amply borne his forecast out.
Essentially, as Henry Ford proved with his automobile manufacturing division of labor, when companies adopt specialization in their workforces, they produce more goods or services while spreading the cost of production. The bottom line is that economies of scale are thereby generated, granting any company achieving it a very advantageous commercial edge over the competition.
But the modern workforce also includes an army of managerial professionals, who have similarly been forced to specialize in specific areas of expertise as the division of labor (and the international scale of trade) grows ever more complicated.