Do weak math skills matter at work?

When the Program for International Student Assessment -- which measured American 15-year-old students' performance in math, reading and science tests against their peers in 65 other countries -- released results earlier this month, much consternation surrounded the fact that the U.S. ranked 26th in the world in math attainment. It is, indeed, astonishing that the world’s richest nation does so poorly. But the results also made me wonder: how important is math in the workplace? Do we need to be good at it?

According to ACT (best known for administering college admission tests), 46 percent of jobs require Level 3 math -- that means you can make change -- and 93 percent of the population can do this. Another 36 percent of jobs require level 4 math -- that means you can do simple averages -- and 76 percent of Americans can do that. As the level of math skill demanded increases, there are fewer Americans who can fulfil these requirements. But there are also far fewer jobs that need them. On that basis, it looks like we do have the math skills our jobs demand.

In part, technology is solving our problem. We work machinery that we may not understand -- but which we do know how to operate. Increasingly, if it breaks, we're not repairing those machines but replacing them. Even change can be worked out by cash registers, which themselves may soon be outmoded as consumers prefer digital payment systems. 

Those of us who sweated through high school algebra may feel mildly resentful at the idea that all that pain was in vain. Surely it was useful for something? Yet I struggle to recall occasions when I've used it, in my life or in my work. So is there a problem? Do we need math at all?


 The crucial issue here is that not having the skills to solve higher order problems, or the skills to assess whether a proffered answer is right or wrong, acts as an absolute ceiling to advancement. As low-end jobs are replaced by automation, the world of work will grow increasingly demanding of intellectual rigor and academic achievement. As the bottom disappears, the fight for the top will become intense.

Moreover, most of the future workforce can -- and should -- anticipate more than one career. You might be working in design now, but that doesn't mean that you might not one day find yourself working in a museum where the ability to articulate concepts of astronomy, distance and time might be crucial. And you won't be able to communicate clearly if you don't understand those concepts.

Much in the new core curriculum is specifically designed to develop and advance the critical thinking skills that mathematics can (given decent teachers) provide. Whether this will impact future PISA scores remains to be seen. The real challenge remains finding ways to teach math so that it feels relevant and less like a chore to students. The current argument -- that  it could save you from a dead-end job -- clearly hasn't made much impact on U.S. students yet.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on