Employers are more interested in whether young people have participated in local theatre or raised money for charity than they are in exam grades, according to the head of the CBI.
John Cridland, director general of the business lobbying organisation, believes schools should be doing more to develop character. He said that his members were likely to look at all elements of a candidate's CV, rather than merely their qualifications, because "everybody has A*s".
In an interview with TES, the business leader also called for Ofsted to judge schools on the holistic development of pupils, claiming that the inspectorate should focus less on the "metrics" and more on "whole education".
"I am genuine in saying my experience in talking with employers is that what they really want is enthusiasm and creativity and passion," Mr Cridland said. "They want academic rigour as well. But the things on the CV: what have you done in the local theatre club? What have you done in the local sports club? What have you done to put something back into the local community? What have you raised for charity? [These] are just as important to employers, because frankly everybody has A*s.
"You differentiate by character. Character attributes and behaviours are equally as important as qualifications. Most employers do not recruit on subject or qualification unless you need a particular scientist for a particular research job.They look for somebody that stands out from the crowd."
But Mr Cridland stopped short of saying that character could be taught as a discrete lesson, stating that employers were "suspicious" of bolt-on subjects.
"A really good teacher develops these things in the classroom while teaching English literature," he added. "I learned more about character by reading To Kill A Mockingbird than anything else. And I still think Atticus Finch is a terrific guy."
Mr Cridland's emphasis on character chimes with recent comments from education secretary Nicky Morgan and her opposite number, Labour's Tristram Hunt. By establishing the Character Awards this year, Ms Morgan has even gone so far as to offer schools cash prizes for promoting and instilling character.
Speaking at the awards ceremony last week, she said that qualities such as confidence and assertiveness, which got her through her first days as a City lawyer, "weren't the ones I'd learned by reading textbooks or taking exams".
Mr Cridland's views signal a dramatic departure from the CBI's traditional standpoint. It has often bemoaned the quality of candidates entering the workforce, criticising levels of numeracy and literacy. But Mr Cridland has championed the cause of schools and demanded that his members take more interest in education as early as possible, calling for businesses to "roll up your sleeves and adopt a primary school".
Young people had been "failed" for too long by an insufficiently ambitious education system, he said, arguing that if businesses were unhappy about having to provide remedial classes for recruits then they should establish stronger links with primaries.
Shane Ierston, principal of King's Leadership Academy in Warrington, which won the top prize in the Character Awards, said he agreed that employers were increasingly looking beyond grades. But he insisted that it was possible to teach character as a discrete class.
"It can be taught but you have to really think through what you want to achieve," Mr Ierston said. "Everything we do is geared towards developing our students' character, integrity and leadership. It is completely woven throughout our curriculum and we teach leadership as a separate subject."
John Cridland is supporting the #iwill campaign, which aims to make social action the norm among young people. The scheme, launched in 2013, hopes to increase the proportion of 10- to 20-year-olds taking part in "meaningful" social action by 50 per cent within five years.
Young people are being encouraged to participate in programmes such as care in the community, provide online peer-support, volunteer for a charity, and campaign or fundraise for worthwhile causes.
It is hoped that by joining the project, young people will strengthen their communities as well as developing character and employability skills.