Survey of Adult Skills: How are skills related to social and economic participation?

Publication Details

New Zealand participated in the OECD's Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) in 2014. The survey is part of the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

This A3 looks at how skill levels relate to social and economic participation in New Zealand.

Author(s): Paul Satherley, Tertiary, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: December 2018

Key Findings

Proficiency levels are related to social and economic participation but does not determine it

The stronger people’s literacy and numeracy skills, the more positive their work, social and wellbeing indicators are likely to be. But many people with low skills also have positive outcomes.

Each of the six proficiency levels, below Level 1 to Level 5, covers a range of skills. Even people whose literacy skill is Level 1 or below are able to successfully undertake some simple reading tasks in English. A majority are employed and a few even earn well. At the same time, people with Level 2 skills are much more likely to be employed and earn well.

People with Level 1 or below literacy or numeracy skills have the most to gain from support in skill development.

People with Level 2 skills are more likely to have successful life indicators compared with those with lower skills

Level 2 skills in literacy or numeracy, compared with Level 1 or below skills, are associated with being more likely to:

  • have a degree or higher qualification
  • be employed
  • have high income
  • self-report excellent health.

Of the people with Level 1 or below literacy skills with a degree level qualification, 65% have non-English-speaking backgrounds. The remainder mostly have vocational degrees in low literacy demanding subject areas.

Figure 1: Proportions of 16-65 year olds at literacy and numeracy skill levels

Table 1: Proportions of those at different skill levels who have selected indicators of social and economic participation.
Level 1
Level 2Level 3
Level 1
Level 2Level 3
with English-speaking background 56% 73% 82% 62% 77% 82%
with degree or higher qualifications 19% 31% 55% 20% 36% 57%
employed 61% 74% 82% 61% 76% 84%
of employed with top quintile earnings 6% 12% 37% 7% 11% 42%
with excellent self-assessed health status 16% 19% 23% 16% 20% 24%
What is the Survey of Adult Skills?

New Zealand participated in the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills in 2014. The Survey measured 16-65 year olds’ literacy and numeracy skills.

Table 2: What do proficiency levels mean?
Below Level 1 Level 1 Level 2
Literacy Reading brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information identical to what is given in the question, with seldom any competing information. Understanding sentences or paragraphs is not required. Reading relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information that may be synonymous with what is given in the question. Reading paragraphs of text is expected. Matching across texts and information which may require paraphrasing or low-level inferences. Some competing information may be present.
NumeracySimple processes such as counting, sorting, basic arithmetic operations with whole numbers or money, or recognising common spatial representations in familiar contexts with little or no text or distractors. Carry out basic mathematical processes with little text and minimal distractors, including simple percentages, and identifying elements of common graphical or spatial representations. Tasks usually require only one step. Act on mathematical information embedded in common contexts where the mathematical context is fairly explicit or visual with relatively few distractors. Tasks tend to require two or more steps.
How are literacy and numeracy defined?

Literacy is understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.

Numeracy is the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.

Proficiency levels describe the tasks that adults with a particular range of proficiency scores can successfully complete. They should not be understood as ‘standards’ or ‘benchmarks’ for particular purposes, for example access to post-secondary education, or fully participating in a modern economy.

When were literacy and numeracy previously measured?

In 1996 and 2006, New Zealand participated in two earlier adult skills surveys: the International Adult Literacy Survey and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey. Together with the 2014 Survey of Adult Skills, they provide comparable measures of literacy at three points in time, and of numeracy at two points. They show New Zealand 16-65 year olds’ literacy skills have increased since 1996, and numeracy skills are stable since 2006.

Contact Us

Survey of Adult Skills
For queries about the Survey of Adult Skills please contact:

Paul Satherley
Senior Research Analyst
Ministry of Education
P O Box 1666
Wellington 6140

Email:   Adult Literacy & Life Skills Mailbox