Interests and Abilities: Better Together

Wall, Janet_500x500

Janet E. Wall, EdD, MCDP, CDFI, SMMS, NCDA Fellow, is a career development professional in Arlington, Virginia. She is committed to the continuing education of all career counselors, coaches and specialists by providing online courses and webinars through She was the developer of the ASVAB Career Exploration Program for the Department of Defense, and was recently named a Fellow of the National Career Development Association. She is co-author of the Ability Explorer published by JIST. Contact her as follows: 202-465-5774. e-mail: <>

Abilities and Interests – Better Together for Providing Career Services

Substantial research supports the notion that people who are working in areas that peak their interests are happier, more productive, and stay on the job longer.  For example, the literature describing the Holland theory on vocational interests suggests that people seek out and flourish in career environments that fit their interests and these areas can be categorized into 6 types – Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.  Jobs and career environments can generally be described in the same ways. When the person’s interests are congruent or correspond with the dominant interest area of the job, the match is compatible and satisfying.

What tends to be discounted by career development people and programs is that the same concept is true for one’s abilities. There is research evidence that suggests that people gravitate toward work that uses their abilities because it provides satisfaction and intrinsic rewards.  If people are not working in occupations that match their abilities they become dissatisfied and require some modification with the work environment. Sometimes it is the employee that instigates the modification because they sense that they are not up to the ability requirements of the job. Other times it is the employer that initiates the change because they are unhappy with the relatively poor performance and can’t afford to retain the employee resulting in reduce profitability. This has implications for a person’s job security.

As shown in the graphic below, the optimal combination is when the person is working with their best abilities and in their dominant interest areas.

optimal combination

Ability: The Missing Link in Career Development Services

Many comprehensive career guidance systems include one or more assessment tools. Most concentrate on measuring interests because that tends to be easier to measure, better understood, and more politically acceptable to career development professionals. Some systems include personality types which do not really provide guidance on career selection but may offer some opportunity for greater understanding of ourselves and our interactions with others.

Most career guidance systems do not use abilities and match them to career options. Many if not most career centers, be it at the high school or postsecondary level, do not employ an ability assessment. Workforce centers often use job specific assessments or instruments that can help predict a person’s ability to benefit from training, but they generally don’t consider abilities in the career exploration and development process.

Might this lack of attention to abilities short change the individual and position him/her to make less than optimal career decisions? Might their career decisions be unrealistic if abilities and ability requirements are not properly emphasized? Might the employer be unhappy if abilities are not considered by career services providers as they recommend potential employees?

What is an Ability?

For purposes of this article, I define three related but different constructs – aptitude, ability, and skill.

Aptitude certainly involves abilities, but is related more toward something more innate or natural, like a giftedness.  A person with an aptitude in an area has the ability to learn it more quickly and easily than one who does not possess that natural talent.  We are referring to aptitude when we say that a person has a knack for fixing things, or is a gifted artist, or has a special talent for learning languages. Some people call aptitudes “natural abilities” or “natural strengths.”

Abilities certainly include natural talents, but abilities can be developed and taught. That is why as we participate in training and education and have experiences to develop our abilities and acquire new ones. We develop abilities in the academics, for example, as we participate in additional schooling. A person may not have an aptitude for mathematics, but certainly can develop the ability with time, teaching, and practice.

Skills are smaller units or tasks that can progressively build into an ability. An example would be calculating the square footage of a room, or crafting a coherent paragraph. Each of these combined with other related skills may actually become an ability.  So a person who can write a coherent paragraph may, with additional teaching, experience, and practice, can develop the ability to write a logical and succinct paper on a subject. They may or may not have an aptitude or natural ability for it, however.

Using Interests and Abilities Together:
Implications for Individuals, Employers and Career Services Providers

To follow are examples of how the synergy of interests and abilities matter to individuals, employers and career development professionals.

Individuals. Using interests and abilities together brings about the most bang for the buck for the individuals as they contemplate career options or find themselves already in the workforce. Individuals working with their best abilities and in their primary interest areas are the most satisfied and productive. Those who are not have varying career development issues and needs. They may not be as satisfied with their career choice and may not be as involved in, committed to, or enthusiastic about their work situation.

Employers. When employees are working with their best abilities and in their high interest areas also effects employers. Employers want and need their employees to be productive by using their best abilities, but understand that when the person is also working in their dominant interest areas, this is the best situation for them.  They know that the good employee is a happier employee and will likely have a greater commitment to the organization. They are considered engaged on the job and are more productive.

Career Services Providers. Providers can help individuals use both interest and abilities together to find compatible careers and jobs using interest and ability assessments along with such resources as O*NET which offers considerable information on the nature of occupations. They can work with individuals to find the best career fit for them.

Career counselors, advisers, coaches, and human resources staff have special roles to play when individuals are not working in their optimal situation; that is, with their high abilities and in high areas of career interest. They may be able to assist clients in identifying their interests and abilities through assessment, help them find education and training resources to increase their abilities, and offer services that include resume writing, networking, and interviewing skills when a job transition is in order. Sometimes mental health services may need to be provided or a referral made to such a person.

The chart below attempts to encapsulate and simplify the conditions experienced by the individual, the employer, and the career services provider when the person is and in not working in their highest abilities and interests. The green quadrant represents the situation when the person is working with their best abilities and in their high interest areas.  The yellow areas represent the situation when the person is working in either a low ability area or a low interest area but not both.  The red section shows the situation where the person is working in low interest and low ability conditions.  It is so important for us as career services practitioners to understand our responsibilities in each of these various conditions.

fit diagram


Since using either interests or abilities alone in career decision making can lead to a more satisfying and productive career, using both together provides a greater opportunity for the individual to make a career choice that is satisfying and more likely to lead to success on the job. Using both in career development and decision making is likely to result in a more productive and engaged worker, a happier employers, a more successful company or organization, and a more vibrant US economy. Career services providers are key players in creating better worker situations and productive worker engagement.

The original of this article appeared in the September-October 2015 issue of the the Career Planning and Adult Development Newsletter. A very special thanks to Harley Baker, Bruce Biskin, Mary Ghilani, and Susan Biggs for their excellent suggestions and input to this article.