The Case for Character Skills | Navigating New Zealand’s future of work

By Kieran Madden December 08, 2020

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King

Success early on in life is about more than just doing well in academic tests. What these tests don’t necessarily capture is what we call “character skills,” skills valued by employers in New Zealand and across the world. Due to the ever-increasing uncertainty of the future of work and the ever-expanding role of technology, this demand is only going to grow. We must re-balance and re-imagine our skills development pathways to meet this new reality.

Character skills are known by many names. Economists tend to refer to non-cognitive skills; psychologists to personality traits; educationalists to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL); futurists to 21st century skills; business leaders to soft skills; and philosophers to character virtues. The subset of character skills we explore can be called “performance” virtues and include perseverance, motivation, and self-control. These must be understood and situated in the broader context of other intellectual, moral, and civic virtues.


The Case For Character Skills

Navigating New Zealand’s future of work


Character skills developed early in life contribute to future success in school, work, and life more generally at a similar rate to test scores, and in some cases, even more. There is good evidence that developing these skills results in higher wages, less use of health and social services, and avoidance of the criminal justice system. One academic calls these skills “the missing piece” in education.

Character skills are increasingly valuable in the workplace and employers are struggling to find workers with these skills. As some of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy rely on people with these skills, they are in demand and being rewarded now, and this will only grow in the future with advances in automation and AI on the horizon. Technology has and will continue changing how we work and we must adapt our education, training, and development systems to give people the best chance of flourishing, not just in the workplace but in other areas of life too.

Character skills are not just a “nice-to-have,” they are critical to our future for work and education success. We must shift from viewing the future as a threat—with nightmarish visions of robots causing mass unemployment— to one of opportunity: where jobs of the future harness the complementary strengths of humans and technology. That which makes us human will be our most valuable asset in the future, as we strive to become “first-class humans” rather than “second-class robots.”

While the evidence is maturing in this relatively-new and fast-expanding field, there is good neuroscientific, economic, and psychological rationale for seeking to understand and build these skills. Policymakers should proceed with caution and optimism. Focusing on the early years and the disadvantaged in particular, and investing in parenting, relationships, and evidence-based programmes in schools will go a long way towards better outcomes. Parents and caregivers, schools, community organisations, and employers all have complementary roles to play to make a difference on the developmental trajectory of New Zealanders.

The paper explores:
  • The nature of character skills: what they are, how we can define and categorise them, and why we chose a particular conception;
  • The demand for character skills in the economy: what the future of work will likely look like, and which kinds of skills will be most sought after;
  • The empirical evidence: the extent they can be developed and which kinds of interventions are most effective; and
  • Principles and policies aimed at re-imagining our education, training, and development environment to a skills system that is fit-for-purpose and for the future.

Key Recommendations

  1. Early childhood is a critical period for intervention. Neuroscientific evidence shows how the early years are a critical and sensitive time for developing character skills. Promoting responsive relationships between children and parents/caregivers and reducing “toxic” stress in children’s lives is a key part of this. Skills development is cumulative, so children who develop them earlier have a head-start in life.
  2. Focusing on the disadvantaged is key. Skills development benefits everyone, but the evidence is much stronger for character skills making a big difference in the lives of disadvantaged children. This is because “atypical environments” don’t provide the context to develop skills that “normal developmental encounters” do.
  3. Investing in the right skills makes all the difference. Skills that are malleable (can be changed through interventions), fundamental for later success, and unlikely to develop eventually in the absence of an intervention are most important to develop. Self-regulation is an example of this kind of skill.
  4. Early Investment must be matched with on-going investment. Early investments are less effective “unless they are accompanied by subsequent investments in sufficiently high-quality schools and other environmental contexts in which development takes place.” A greater focus on the “sustaining environments” after early investment will yield long-term benefits.
  5. Developing parenting skills and relationships more important than income. While income is an important factor in improving a broad array of outcomes and lack of sufficient resources can negatively impact parents’ capacity, the importance of parenting and mentoring—the key relationships in children’s lives—is relatively more important.
  6. Aligning concepts and practice leads to better results. Because the character skills field is conceptually very complex with no unifying framework like more mature knowledge areas, aligning evidence, definition, strategy, and evaluation is critical to working towards well-defined goals.
  7. The importance of evaluation We can’t afford character skills to be “a bandwagon with loose wheels,” enthusiasm must not get ahead of the evidence. Many educational innovations have proven later to be ineffective “fads.” It is important that that the evidence drives reform rather than intuition.
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