Survey of Adult Skills: What are some characteristics of people with strong skills?

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 some of the characteristics people with strong skills have.

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

Date Published: December 2018

Key Findings

Strong skills are clearly related to positive social and economic outcomes...

The stronger people’s literacy and numeracy skills, the more likely they are to have higher level qualifications And the more likely they are to have positive work, social and wellbeing outcomes.  This includes being more likely to be employed and have high earnings, and have excellent self-rate health status.

The slightly increased likelihoods of employment and high earnings for people with both strong literacy and strong numeracy skills suggest employers value this combination..

...but do not determine them.

About 30% of people with strong skills do not have a degree qualification. Only 15% of these people do not have at least upper secondary education.

About 1 in 10 people with strong skills are not employed. About half of these people are students, and the main activities of another 20% are looking after children or domestic duties.

About 15% of people with strong skills had a non-English speaking background, even though the Survey measured literacy and numeracy skills in English.  Three quarters of these people had at lease degree level qualifications.

Proportions with at least degree level highest qualification by skill level

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

Figure 2: Proportions of employed people with quintile earnings

Note: The proportion of New Zealand 16-65 year-olds with Level 5 skills was too small to analyse separately so we have combined them as Levels 4 and 5.

Table 1: Proportions of those with strong skill levels who have selected social indicators and outcomes
Proportion Level 4 or 5 % Literacy & Numeracy
Level 4 or 5 in both %
All 16-65 year-olds %
with degree or higher qualifications 69 69 72 43
employed 87 88 89 77
of employed in the top 20% of earnings 39 43 45 20
with excellent self-assessed health status 28 26 27 21
with English-speaking background 86 83 86 77
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?
  Level 4 Level 5
Literacy Multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesis information from complex or lengthy texts. Complex inferences and applying background knowledge may be needed. Many tasks require identifying and understanding one or more specific, but non-central ideas in the text in order to interpret or evaluate subtle evidence-claims or persuasive discourse relationships.  Conditional information is frequently present in tasks at this level and must be taken into consideration by the respondent.  Completing information is present and sometimes seemingly as prominent as correct information. Searching for an integrating information across multiple, dense texts; constructing syntheses of similar and contrasting ideas or points of view; evaluating evidence-based arguments.  Applying and evaluating logical and conceptual models of ideas may be required.  Evaluating reliability  of evidentiary sources and selecting key information is frequently a requirement. Tasks often require respondents to be aware of subtle, rhetorical cues and to make high-level inferences or use specialised background knowledge.
Numeracy Understanding a broad range of mathematical information that may be complex, abstract or embedded in unfamiliar contexts. These tasks involve undertaking multiple steps and choosing relevant problem-solving strategies and processes. Tasks tent to require analysis and more complex reasoning in relationships; and change, proportions and formulas. Tasks at this level my also require understanding arguments or communicating well-reasoned explanations for answers or choices. Tasks at this level require the respondent to understand complex representations and abstract and formal mathematical and statistical ideas, possibly embedded in complex texts. Respondents may have to integrate multiple types of mathematical information where considerable translation or interpretation is required; draw inferences; develop or work with mathematical arguments or models, and justify, evaluate and critically reflect upon solutions or choices.
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.

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