The Intersection of Vocational Interests with Employment and Course Enrolments

By Athanasou, James A. | Australian Journal of Career Development, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Intersection of Vocational Interests with Employment and Course Enrolments

Athanasou, James A., Australian Journal of Career Development

All things being equal, it would be nice if people were able to study what they liked and work at what gives them satisfaction. This paper starts by examining the role of interests in learning and career development and then moves from this general position to examine how it is expressed in practice. The paper is based on the view that one's interests are a major factor in educational achievement. Moreover, interests continue to play a substantial role in career throughout the life span. Interests are related to work adjustment and are a key feature of job satisfaction for many individuals (Athanasou, 2007). Most people would be prepared to acknowledge that interests are important for learning and working, yet they may not have a clear understanding of the extent to which they are able to be expressed. The purpose of this paper is to examine whether vocational interests match the pattern of course enrolments or the distribution of employment in Australia.


The links between interest and achievement have been documented in German educational research. These studies emphasised the role of interest (singular) in learning and development (Renninger, Hidi, & Krapp, 1992). They distinguished between a temporary or curiosity type of situational interest, and a deep, long-term and abiding individual interest. Individual interest was characterised by involvement, emotional attachment, knowledge and familiarity with a specific field, topic or activity. A direct example of the relationship between interest and educational achievement in Australia (Athanasou, 1994) came from a study of 1,324 technical and further education students across 66 courses in 31 technical colleges. This showed that:

* 66% of students were best at the subject that was their first preference

* 72% were best at a subject that was consistent with their vocational choice

* the preference rank for best subject was 0.84 (ranks varied from 0 to 1)

* the preference rank for the weakest subject was 0.19 (ranks varied from 0 to 1).

This study was followed up by further research (Athanasou, 1998) to determine the influence of value, ability and time spent on a subject of interest. There were certainly strong links between interest and ability, indicating that they shared some sort of common platform (see also Ackerman & Heggestad, 1997). The relationships are highlighted in the structural diagram below (Figure 1), which emphasises the strong links between interest and ability and to a lesser extent between interest and perceived value. The implication is that in talking about interests we might actually be including other aspects of behaviour such as components of ability, values or effort. To summarise these findings, one might say that by and large there is little need to motivate the person who is interested in something, because interest is related to his/her abilities and what they value (i.e. consider relevant, important) and significantly this interest is not necessarily a function of the time spent studying the subject.


From other research we also know that interests are relevant to occupational achievement and work satisfaction. Here the relationship is more complex than in a school environment because there are many additional factors operating in a career. As the sociologist Gottfredson noted more than 25 years ago, our career choices are circumscribed and compromised (Gottfredson, 1981). Interests are often one of the factors that are first sacrificed in order to achieve one's goals. Some factors that are resistant to change, however, are gender stereotyping of available occupations and the desired prestige level available in a career choice.

Despite the fact that there are multiple influences on occupational choice other than interests, there is still sufficient evidence to state with confidence that when other factors are held constant, job satisfaction does involve a degree of matching of one's interests with the reinforcers or type of work undertaken (Holland, 1997).

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The Intersection of Vocational Interests with Employment and Course Enrolments


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