A good place to explore that question is with another question: What are aptitudes? In relation to career decision making, modern discussion of aptitudes can be traced back as far as the 1920s – a time when the modern understanding of career interests was also being developed.

Matching a person to a job that would likely provide a lifetime of employment was a dominant theme in helping people find suitable work. Within this understanding, aptitudes were understood to be enduring, inherent qualities. They came to be regarded as worker traits that exhibit some degree of stability over relatively long periods of time.

During the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) initiated a program of aptitude test research to further develop and refine the early concepts of assessing a person’s job-related aptitudes. The General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB), published in 1947 following World War II, emerged from this research as a way to test aptitudes applicable to typical jobs of the era. It was comprised of 12 separate, proctored tests.

By the 1980s, emerging concerns relating to the measurement of aptitudes led to a study by the U.S .National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. Key issues identified by the NRC included aesthetics, speed of completion, scoring, and susceptibility to coaching. Subsequently, the battery went through several important changes in development, and new test forms, now known as the Ability Profiler, were published; however, the baseline of the what was to be considered aptitudes and abilities important to work remained rooted in the 1930s and post-World War II research conducted in factories and offices of that time.

With this history, you can now see that the understanding of “aptitudes” transitioned to the new terminology of “abilities.” Indeed, during the 1990s, development of the DOL’s Occupation Information Network (O*NET), use of the term “aptitudes” was entirely abandoned in favor of abilities that represented cognitive, psychomotor, physical, and sensory domains represented by classical constructs such as memorization, finger dexterity, stamina, and night vision.

The transitional understanding of aptitudes to abilities cannot avoid juxtaposition with 21st century concerns and understandings that invite us to broaden and re-examine our approaches to abilities. Implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act beginning in 1990, together with changes made possible through new tools and technologies such as robotics, smartphones, and artificial intelligence, have altered the landscape.

Abilities important to jobs and workplaces as the world undergoes a fourth industrial revolution are changing and can no longer be defined in the same way, as technical advances now make possible what may have been previously impossible.

In the midst of such change, career decision making must look to more enduring qualities. Based on research, we know that effective career exploration and planning in the 21st century starts with finding out what you like to do (interests), what you’re confident doing (skills self-efficacy), and what’s important to you in the workplace (work values). We also know that individuals persist in school courses, majors, occupations, and jobs at a higher rate if their measured interests guide their selection of these. Interest assessments help students identify and understand their interest patterns or themes.

For example, in one Kuder study, we followed over 12,000 university students at a university in Florida. The primary focus of this study was on the match between students’ interest assessment clusters and their selected majors, and if this degree of match — or congruence between interests and major — is related to students’ academic outcomes in terms of university Grade-Point-Average (GPA). We found that students whose majors were congruent with their interests had higher GPAs. Specifically, if the students’ majors matched any one of their top three ranked Kuder assessment clusters, the GPA was significantly higher. What emerges from this research is a picture of students seeing purpose in their training and education.

A recent Gallup-Bates College study, Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work, shows the extent to which college graduates seek and find purpose in their work. The report emphasizes the importance of aligning interests and work values with potential careers. The following excerpts point out one of the study’s key findings:

When are interests formed, and how does the Kuder system measure them?

Interests start being formed in the elementary and middle school years, and they solidify during the secondary and postsecondary years. Career interests remain quite stable across one’s life span and continues to be important predictors of job satisfaction and stability. The Kuder Career Planning System® (KCPS) exposes students to career exploration as early as pre-K. Using the Kuder system from elementary school on provides broad exposure to interest areas.

The KCPS is designed to provide students with the competency of self-awareness. This foundational understanding of one’s personal interests, skills confidence, and work values sets the stage for effective career exploration and the pursuit of meaningful work. Ultimately, the KCPS is designed to enable students to be in the best possible position to achieve a sense of purpose and satisfaction in their chosen future careers.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, Kuder’s executive director of product development: “There is little in life that is more personal or more important than career planning – and one-third of our waking hours are spent at work. Why not find an occupation you enjoy?”