Poor work attitudes among the long-term unemployed are the major barrier to tackling Britain’s jobless crisis, according to a new report from think tank the Centre for Social Justice.

Based on a survey and extensive interviews with employers, the report says a commitment to hard work, presentation and punctuality is more important than literacy and numeracy skills when firms fill “entry level jobs”, such as the hotel and restaurant trade, retailing, catering and manufacturing, typically staffed by unskilled workers. Such jobs make up about a third of the total UK workforce of around 27 million.

The report states 82% of entry level employers rated attitude and work ethic as important to progression versus 38% for literacy and numeracy. Asked why they turned down applicants for unskilled jobs (which make up about one third of the workforce), 62% of employers cited “poor work attitude and ethic” and 57% said poor presentation. This compares with the 29% identifying lack of academic skills. A key recommendation from the CSJ is that schools should add a fourth “R” to their traditional prescription of reading, writing and arithmetic. The new element should be “responsibility”, meaning that teenagers should be taught how to conduct themselves in the workplace.

Gavin Poole, CSJ executive director, said: “Many employers told us that they believe students should leave education “work ready” and that currently too many students fall short.

“Timekeeping, self-awareness, confidence, presentation, communication, teamwork and an ability to understand workplace relationships are too often below the standard required, particularly in younger job seekers.

“The education system needs to also focus on the fourth “R”, responsibility, enabling young people to take greater ownership over their future, to seek out the information that they need to make the right choices now, and to understand how their decisions today are likely to affect their future.