Innumerate, unemployable

A British haberdashery hires only applicants who can do mental math, reports the Daily Mail,  Most fail.

Colin Bamberger, 82, whose parents founded the Remnant Shop in 1944, said that less than one in ten applicants are now able to solve basic maths problems without turning to a calculator or till.

In the past, around eight in ten made the grade.

. . . He said: ‘Most of the youngsters who come to us for jobs are unemployable because they are not numerate.

. . . ‘It is all very well using calculators but if you have not got some idea what the answer is, how do you know if you have pushed the right button? It’s so easy to make a mistake.

Bamberger blames poor teaching and over-reliance on calculators.

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  1. Mark G. says:

    I think his standard is reasonable… I worked in a restaurant where the manager would not look at applications for wait staff if there was a single spelling error.

    Unfortunately, these lapses in basic skills are symptoms of one problem in education: valuing outcomes over processes. It’s not a universal, not in every classroom, but it seems like with the emphasis on testing it is easy for parents and students alike to only care about the final score and not how that score was achieved.

    We had a bunch of kids break into our high school a few years back, stole several test answer keys for final exams. In all, several dozen kids were involved. They were all the “star” AP students, the ASB officers, etc. Clearly, the value for that group was the test score, not the learning. It’s a cultural problem, I believe, not just bad teaching.

  2. OOH. When I used to hire PAs and associate producers, I automatically threw away any with typos and/or spelling errors, figuring that if they couldn’t be bothered to proof-read their own resumes, why would they bother to proof anything for me. HR at one cable channel told me that this might be considered discrimination. I laughed.

    I once got a resume from someone who had as the career goal to secure a job at Pubic Television.

  3. Would like to know what some of his math problems are so I could demonstrate with my students. They think I’m cruel because I expect them to know what half of 75 is, or how to figure their grade when I give them a paper back with 10 out of 15 correct. What’s the tax on a $100 purchase? (I even give them the tax rate.)

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    dkzody, perhaps I’m missing something, but how can you figure the tax on a $100 purchase if you don’t know what the actual total sales tax rate is?

    That said, it should not be a big deal for anyone to figure out how to give change on a purchase — the cost is $6.53, say, and the clerk is given a $10 bill. But I find most of the clerks most places these days don’t know how to make change unless the machine tells them how much change is due back to the customer.

    And so it goes…

  5. ucladavid says:

    Here’s what I love/hate: say the total is $6.53. I give them 10.02 and the clerk doesn’t understand why I gave the extra 2 cents so they hand those 2 pennies right back to me.

  6. linda seebach says:

    KitchenTableMath has a few sample problems

    I think being handy with mental math is useful, but primarily as a check on whether the result is plausible, given that the sales clerk is going to have to key in the figures anyway. I can do 15 percent value-added tax in my head, but if it were 17.8 percent? Or if it applied to all but two of eight items (as is often true of US sales taxes)? And converting the customer’s order from yards into meters (as required by the EU bureaucracy) seems a little much to expect.

    If someone gave me $10.02 for a $6.53 total, I’d be puzzled too. But I almost never encounter someone who would be puzzled by three pennies.

  7. “I worked in a restaurant where the manager would not look at applications for wait staff if there was a single spelling error.”

    It seems like a reasonable standard to me. However, I wonder if such a standard would get a restaurant sued for discriminating against the foreign born.

  8. @ Mark – the foreign born would probably do better at spelling than the native born.

    I think that the title of the post is a little overblown – the “innumerate” are not generally unemployable; they are just not able to be hired at this particular haberdashery.

    Nor are they particularly innumerate. The math they people can’t do in their head isn’t calculating 7% sales tax on $100. It is converting 5 yards of cloth to 5 meters, or determining how long a ribbon must be in centimeters to go around a cake with a 12 inch diameter.

    While I can solve both of these problems without a calculator, I can’t easily do them in my head (and the expression on my face would not fill the customers with confidence, either).

    I blame my teachers for allowing us to use pencil and paper as a crutch.

  9. Devilbunny says:

    Peter – it’s not spelled out, but the article suggests that writing it down on paper might be acceptable. Certainly I don’t know how you could accurately do a metric-to-traditional conversion without paper or a lot of practice.

  10. Margo/Mom says:


    Wouldn’t you want to hand them $10.03? Which just goes to show that none of us is free of errors. I will grant that I am more likely to view errors in a resume or cover letter with a raised eyebrow than in a blog. I recall back in the day when I was presented with a resume that was typed, copied and had been updated by adding a handwritten line at the bottom.

    We had a no-frills chain grocery that opened some years back without scanners. The cashiers manually entered prices from memory. They didn’t seem to have a problem with hiring, and I believe that they were well-paid. They were also speedy.

    What gets my goat is when I get a note from school that is filled with grammatical and spelling errors. I recognize that perhaps non-English teachers are not expected to be tops in writing, but I would expect them to at least be able to recognize their own deficits and run things through a spell checker, or a colleague, for correction of errors.

    I also understand that some personnel, like bus drivers, are not expected to have advanced writing skills, but to my mind it does reflect badly when they are communicating poorly. I don’t mind them being hired–just wish they were getting some better on the job training to do all of the facets of their job–which sometimes includes written communication.

    None of this, to my mind, springs from standardized testing.

  11. ucladavid says:

    Yeah just a simple stupid math error. Oops, my bad. I am on summer vacation; that’s my excuse. 😉

    One example that happened to me just last weekend. I was at a store and I did hand the cashier a couple extra pennies. The cashier was so confused by those few pennies that she had to re-ring me up.

    People usually get impressed that I can do basic math in my head like adding 2 digit numbers or dividing/multiplying by 2 or 3, but to me, it is something that anybody should be able to do.

  12. say the total is $6.53. I give them 10.02 and the clerk doesn’t understand why I gave the extra 2 cents so they hand those 2 pennies right back to me.

    I don’t understand why you gave him $.02 either – that’s probably why he gave it back to you.

  13. @Devilbunny –

    Yeah, that was kind of unclear in the article – on the one hand they kept going on and on about “mental math”…and on the other hand, they did give an example of having to write things down for a customer.

    If they could do the math by hand, it would be at least reasonable…if not still somewhat persnickety.

    Although I would still feel more confident doing 12*2.54*3.14 by calculator…

  14. Just 2 years ago, in my pre-calc class, we spent more time going over things we’d already learned in BOTH Algebra I & II than we did on what little new material there is. As for the people who won’t look at anything with a single spelling error in it, I think that may be a little harsh. Even my dad, who has a PhD. in English from Harvard, has been known to, even after proof-reading, have things like double instances of words, or occasionally the wrong form of a word. Believe me, the only member of my family who relies on spellcheck is my little sister who is slightly dyslexic. It’s also helpful when you forget if something uses a ‘y’ or an ‘i,’ like I just did with “dislexic.” While I don’t RELY on spellcheck, and I will never touch grammarcheck, there are times when spellchecking comes in handy. Regardless, one can easily omit a letter absentmindedly and not realize it for some time. There is also the problem when one’s keyboard sticks, either omitting a letter or duplicating it. But people who can’t figure out change from a dollar without a calculator either have a serious learning disability or should never have passed 3rd grade.