• Susanna Williams

Work Aptitude

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

“[The Air Force] found I had a high administrative and leadership aptitude. So I was sent to Germany, where I held an administrative role during peacetime and later was trained to plot nuclear, biological and chemical fallout as my wartime function.”

-Caroline MacDonald, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Rosewood Hotel Group, as quoted in the New York Times

High school students have taken the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or ACT (American College Testing) to demonstrate their potential for academic success in four-year college or university since 1926. Yet employers increasingly complain about the quality of their prospective hires. This leads me to wonder... why don’t we have a standard Work Aptitude test (WAT)?

The strange thing is, such a thing exists. Caroline MacDonald, as well as every other person who volunteers to serve in our Armed Forces, took an exam called the ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. More than one million recruits take it annually. And yet it has not caught on outside the military.

The history of the ASVAB is fascinating. With the onset of Modern War in 1917, there was a need to assess recruits’ skills and abilities. There were two tests- Army Alpha, which tested reading, math, ability to follow directions, and knowledge. Army Beta was designed for illiterate, non-schooled, or non-English speaking recruits. (Check out sample questions here.) That basic premise- needing a tool that would tell you where people’s strengths were, regardless of their academic experience- still guides the ASVAB today. The test is now computer-adaptive, but the need and the philosophy remain the same.

The military is just as frustrated as civilian employers by the lack of qualified employee prospects- after all, smarter soldiers make better fighters. But the military, just like civilian society, has lots of jobs that need to be done and require a wide range of skill sets to do them effectively. Where the military differs from civilian employers is that it has a tool that it’s used for over a century to do a pretty good job of assessing people’s capabilities and aptitudes without using clumsy proxies like degrees. Could it be time for a civilian ASVAB? A general Work Aptitude Test that is given to all 8th graders and again in 12th grade?

ACT tried to develop something along these lines with their WorkKeys curriculum and assessments, but it was too cumbersome and specific. Work isn’t actually all that specified. Sectors are so 20th century. Career pathways are, alas, an industrial fantasy that bear little relation to the fluidity of our modern age. No, this imagined WAT (Work Aptitude Test) would be much more basic than that, a revisioning of the Army Alpha & Army Beta tests with a little EntreComp thrown in for future proofing. The first startup to build this assessment is going to make major waves.