New construction workers need math skills

When construction comes back, skilled workers will be needed to replace those pushed into early retirement by the long slump. But many young people don’t have the math skills to learn construction jobs, contractors fear.

Associated General Contractors of America’s regional chapters are supporting about a dozen construction charter schools or construction career academies across the nation, reports McClatchy Newspapers.  “In addition, many are involved in high schools and outreach programs designed to teach basic math skills to young men and women.”

Even if students get passing grades in math — and that’s a fairly big if — they’re not being taught how math applies to the work site.

And construction is all about math. Everything from carpentry and brickwork to grading and sloping involves math.

Construction veterans are shocked at how few graduating students have functional math abilities. That’s why associations and contractors are trying to teach applied math skills.

“If it’s just a page in a book, and here’s the formula and here’s how you put it together, there is no understanding of what it does for you,” (Ted) Aadland, (president of the contractors’ group) said. “Why would you, how would you figure the volume and area? That’s what really clicks with people.”

Joe Youcha, executive director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, works in schools and with courts and community groups to teach applied math across all grade levels. He also runs a boat-building apprenticeship program.

Youcha’s program starts with basic math. In fact, he wrote an instructional book for a Virginia carpenter’s union that requires a high school diploma or GED. When he was first approached, Youcha assumed that it would involve everything from advanced ruler reading to trigonometry.”They were like, ‘No. You have to start with place-value charts, whole numbers and addition and subtraction,’ ” said Youcha, who has an Ivy League degree in history but found his calling teaching applied math. “They come out of school not being able to name the number in front of them. They can’t tell you that 1,075 is one thousand and seventy-five. And they come with a degree.”

Increasingly, construction jobs require the ability to run computerized equipment, says  Aadland.  “All our grading now with heavy equipment is all computerized, and everything is done by satellite in bringing down grades. The industry is really reacting and training the craftspeople as we go.”

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Comments

  1. “Increasingly, construction jobs require the ability to run computerized equipment, says Aadland”….I would think that computerization would *reduce* the need for math skills among the equipment operators. It certainly does this in many other fields: navigating with a GPS takes a lot less math than navigating via celestial navigation.

  2. Oh, please. Construction is one of the industries most dominated by illegal aliens, but it needs math? Because all the Mexicans and Guatemalans have these mad math skillz?

    Talk about a big lie.

  3. I’m sure the contracting supervisors need math.

    The lack of math skills in “graduates” seems to be the result of generations of “new math”, the politicization of ed schools and the dumbing down of curricula and teachers themselves.  A teacher who doesn’t understand anything about arithmetic except as incantations on a page cannot show a student how they can be applied to the real world.  I was the sort who looked for connections and applications and sought them out, but most have to be taught these things; without expert teaching by someone with full mastery of the material, no learning happens.

  4. Please, people, of course you need math to do construction. At a minimum, you need to be able to add and subtract fractions (this doorway is 32 3/4 inches wide and there is a 1 1/2 inch stud on each side, how long does the header that spans the whole thing need to be?), calculate slopes (code requires that sewer pipes slope at least X, but no more than Y), estimate areas and volumes and deal with simple geometry (if the roof slope is 1 to 12, what angle do you cut the rafter beams so that the ends are vertical and look nice?). Move on to cabinet making, with compound miter cuts and so on and you’re looking at some pretty complex geometry.

    Electricians often need to do real math, especially when installing commercial buildings. Dealing with three-phase current (phase-to-phase vs phase-to-neutral), balancing inductive and resistive loads, calculating load factor and other standard measures, all of these are specialized skills based on math. Try your graduates on this: here’s a 120 volt, 20 amp circuit, how many 135 watt lighting fixtures can we put on it (simplify and assume watts are volts times amps)?

    Other trades that I’m not familiar with also deal with math, such as HVAC techs.

    None of this is rocket science, but it’s certainly beyond the abilities of lots of high school graduates – many of them were screwed at the “add and subtract fractions” part. Anyone who has worked a construction site will know that you often see little bits of math scribbled on two by fours or the backs of sheetrock where the worker has stopped to do a bit of calculation.

    Around the internet, you even find books of common construction site calculations and how to do them. Here’s a link to Mastering Math for the Construction Trades:

    http://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Building-Trades-James-Gerhart/dp/0071360239

    Deny all you want, but anyone who has actually worked a job site knows you need simple math all the time and the faster and easier it is for you, the better employee you make the more likely you are to advance.

  5. georgelarson says:

    Long ago I woked in a steel plant and the only skill required to do my job was to read a tape measure. There were many who could not be hired because they could not read a tape measure. That was back in the 1970s.

  6. This is a great article, and it should really be front page news. I’m not involved in construction at all, but my husband does some custom furniture/cabinetry making as a side business. As another person noted, it seems adding and subtracting fractions would be the bare necessity.

    I’m a nurse, and frequently meet prospective/current nursing students in my job. In current nursing curriculums there is a very small math component. To me it was quite easy. It mostly deals with ratio type problems, metric conversions etc. It is very sad to see people struggle with this part of the curriculum, and not be able to go on with the program.

  7. Yeah, that’s right Cal. This guy decided to lie in an article because he stands to gain… what? Fame? Fortune? Do you work in construction, Cal? Do you have the expertise to rationally call this guy out, or are you just being obnoxious? I think i know…

  8. Well, as I’ve said in other posts, basic math skills are something which should be mastered by the time a student leaves elementary school. Things like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, whole numbers, and percentages should be knowledge that students should be able to figure out in their heads, or with pencil and paper (unfortunately, math fads like new new math, overuse of calculators, and just a general apathy towards learning math correctly, by mastering the concepts and ideas behind math has ruined the math and science ability of a whole generation of students since 1990).

    Recently, in a southeastern newspaper, there was a story about a woman who had failed the necessary math course (5 times so far) in order to get into her school’s nursing program (my question is why does she even bother), since she probably won’t be able to make it through a 2 year LPN or 4 year RN program.

    A lack of solid knowledge in the three “R’s” will cause this nation nothing but grief within the next 10-20 years, and having seen so many young persons simply struggle with basic math concepts makes me often wonder the following question:

    “What would happen to this nation if all of the technology we are dependent on simply stopped working?” (I shudder to think of what would happen to this nation, but the answer would probably be total anarchy).

  9. As a math teacher, I can give you probably two reasons why this is happening…

    1. Too much use of calculators in the lower grades. The kids are not forced to reason through the math – just how to punch keys.
    2. Too much of a push to get all students through Algebra II before they graduate. The kids who will take jobs like this didn’t get these concepts the first time around, so instead of having the ability to reteach these concepts, they are pushed forward, handed a calculator, and told, “that’s okay if you don’t get it – the calculator will do it for you!!”

    As far as the comment about all of the illegals working in construction, I’d venture a guess that many of them have a better grasp of basic applied math than their American counterparts. Why? Because many of them learned the math they use in an applied manner – working as apprentices to their parents or relatives. Applied math is often better grasped when taught in context…

  10. I think that far too many ES teachers, and some MS teachers, are themselves very weak in math; a deficiency that ed schools don’t fix. My kids and their friends often said that their teachers, in supposedly some of the best schools in the country, grasped every possible reason to forego math class; an assembly, a birthday, holiday arts/crafts, a film, oral book reports etc. They just seem to lack knowledge and interest. Of course, curriculum problems in ed schools and curriculum/instruction problems in the k-12 system just add to the original weakness and disinterest.

  11. Could we be seeing the product of our tolerance of numeric incompetence in ES teachers?  The repeated failures of many ed school grads to pass their general knowledge qualifying exams was in the news for a while, and it stands to reason that they cannot begin to teach what they don’t understand.  Too many of their students get diplomas without understanding a lick of math, and the downward spiral continues.

    I suppose the only real solution is to insist upon mastery of multiplication tables, fractions, decimals and the rest of all ed school applicants.  They are supposed to be HS grads, they should know K-6 stuff cold; if they don’t know it, they should have to practice it until they can do it without hesitation.  That should be part of the entrance requirements, and practiced regularly so they don’t get rusty.

  12. ” a deficiency that ed schools don’t fix”

    I’m no fan of ed schools, but this idiocy that ed schools are supposed to provide candidates with subject matter skills really has to stop.

    Anyone who makes foolish statements like this one should familiarize themselves with the competency tests and eat a large helping of crow while carrying a sign that says “Completely ignorant”.

    Focus on this fact: competency is the province of the states. In California, high school competency has always been quite rigorous; middle school has been so since NCLB in 2002.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose you don’t need much math in construction if your career goal is standing in the Walmart parking lot hoping somebody comes along to give you a day’s work before the immigration guys show up.

  14. A huge lack of knowledge about the building trades is being demonstrated here. Carpenters do need strong (and quick) math skills. Carpenters’ helpers, not so much. Same relationship exists in all the building trades that involve math. Many of the guys waiting for work in Home Depot parking lots (both documented and undocumented) are hoping to be hired on as carpenters’ helpers or general labor around building sites.

  15. Cal-
    Since most Ed Schools are given the authority to directly license teachers, they do have the responsibility to ensure that their students are competent in the subjects that they will teach. No, they should not provide instruction in the various subjects, but they should ensure through the application process that the candidates are capable.

  16. ” No, they should not provide instruction in the various subjects, but they should ensure through the application process that the candidates are capable.”

    Since I was talking about the person who declared ed schools should “fix” the problem (provide instruction), and had included a quote, I’m not sure what your point is other than try to prove error where none exists.

    First, in California (and, I suspect, in most states) ed schools require you demonstrate competence by passing at least one of the tests prior to enrolling in ed school. However, the reason that they require this is not because it’s “their responsibility” to ensure the prospective teacher has competency, but rather because they would otherwise face terrible PR for taking money from manifestly incompetent people who would NOT be able to be licensed even if they went to all the classes.

    That’s because (second), the school is only legally able to “directly license” students because they commit to following state laws. They aren’t allowed to license anyone they want. So again, your declaration that they should confirm the student is competent is a) already done, at least in California and b) a PR and moral obligation, not a requirement because they could otherwise graduate incompetent teachers.

    Many of the guys waiting for work in Home Depot parking lots (both documented and undocumented) are hoping to be hired on as carpenters’ helpers or general labor around building sites.

    Right, because the guys out in front of HD are how the thousands of illegals are dominating the construction industry?

  17. Cal-
    There are plenty of ways to “fix” the competency problem – like ensuring that applicants have the necessary undergrad coursework during admissions. I have yet to see a dictionary that lists “provide instruction” as a definition for “fix.”

    As for the schools following state education laws… at least in NY there is a big difference between ed school certification and individual certification – most ed school grads would not meet individual certification standards. As long as the candidates complete the necessary seminars on mandated reporting, literacy, and take a few middle school level state tests, the school is given a lot of freedom to design a teacher-prep program.

    Regarding testing… in NY no tests are required prior to entering a teaching program…so I’d say that a large chunk of states (maybe most, maybe not) only require an undergrad degree too.

    As for the school bearing responsibility for the candidate’s competency, yes, they do. The schools grant diplomas and teaching licenses that are supposed to certify that the candidate is a qualified teacher. While the state rubber-stamps the
    teaching license, the ed school is the last real hurdle to being licensed to teach.

  18. There are plenty of ways to “fix” the competency problem – like ensuring that applicants have the necessary undergrad coursework during admissions.

    “Necessary undergrad coursework” is irrelevant if there’s a state competency test. And coursework is a joke. That’s why we go to competency tests.

    While the state rubber-stamps the teaching license, the ed school is the last real hurdle to being licensed to teach.

    Are you arguing that ed schools are ignoring the state legal requirements? If so, make your case. Cite all the examples of ed schools licensing teachers in blatant violation of the state laws. I’m all for fixing that. Barring that solid evidence, I’m not sure what your point is, other than vague insinuation.

    In either case, the state sets the standards on subject matter competency, not the ed schools.

    in NY no tests are required prior to entering a teaching program

    Which means only that the schools don’t mind ripping off unqualified students, because a simple google on any state university shows something like this:

    Students who complete a degree from SUNY Brockport that includes an approved program of teacher preparation for certification are eligible for the College’s recommendation for a teaching credential. Approved programs satisfy New York state academic requirements and, under the terms of the Interstate Agreement, the academic requirements for an initial certificate in many other states. A local application for certification should be filed with the College’s Office of Certifi cation during the semester in which the student is completing degree requirements.

    Initial Certification
    The New York State Education Department requires that all candidates for initial certification must complete training in child abuse prevention and violence prevention, and be fingerprinted. Candidates for initial certification must achieve satisfactory scores on the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test (LAST), the Assessment of Teaching Skills-Written (ATS-W), and the Content Specialty Test (CST) of the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations (NYSTCE).

    In other words, before certification, the teacher candidate has to pass the state competency departments.

    It’s not the ed schools’ job to set academic content standards. That’s the state’s job.

  19. Cal; You said ” this idiocy that ed schools are supposed to provide candidates with subject matter skills…has to stop.” If not from the ed schools, where are such skills taught? I certainly agree with the commentator who said that HS grads SHOULD have all of the ES knowledge and skills, but have not seen convincing evidence that they do. The SAT/ACT scores of prospective teachers do not suggest that they could not benefit from additional knowledge. Since prospective ES teachers typically major in el ed, it would seem that the ed school should ensure subject-area competence. Certainly, that is the norm in other fields. Engineering schools graduate competent engineers, nursing schools graduate competent nurses, business schools graduate competent accountants etc.

  20. >If not from the ed schools, where are such skills taught?

    You do realize that the vast majority of teaching credentials are received in a post-graduate program, right? So a lot of your questions are based on false premises. (Caveat: I’m speaking of California, and I believe but am not certain it’s true everywhere.)

    You are referring to the SAT/ACT scores of prospective ed majors, which is an entirely different thing. The best way to evaluate teacher preparation is to look at GRE scores, and look at them broken down by secondary vs. primary teaching.

    Ed school majors are for 18 year olds who wanted to become teachers. Originally, they had to take subject matter courses in the entire suite of middle school subjects (again approved by the state) and then take an additional year to get their credential (that’s what is normally referred to as ed school, just that last bit).

    The vast majority of teachers in California and, I believe, everywhere get a degree in something other than education and then go into ed school to get the credential or a credential and a major. High school teachers always had to pass a subject matter test. Middle school teachers didn’t, and it was there that you had the incompetents, for the most part.

    I’m no fan of ed schools, but your questions show you don’t understand the process. The state sets standards and the reason we now have tests is because schools (not ed schools, but the subject matter teachers) were prone to passing minority students despite an utter lack of ability. If a teacher didn’t have adequate knowledge, it was the state’s faulty system, not the ed school’s job to teach something they weren’t mandated to teach. And again, that’s why the state upped the testing requirements for primary school teachers, which is why the number of them have plummeted since 2002.

    Engineering schools graduate competent engineers, nursing schools graduate competent nurses, business schools graduate competent accountants etc.

    You really have to distinguish between “competent teachers” (where no one can agree on a definition) and “teachers knowledgeable in their subject matter”. Here, too, you betray considerable lack of knowledge in your post. The state sets the standard for nurses, lawyers, doctors, CPAs and other licensed professions, not the schools. And you have no idea if all engineering schools graduate competent engineers. It’s a sexy comparison but utterly without grounds. There’s far more data proving that most teachers know their subject matter than there is that most engineering graduates know theirs. The top is higher than teachers, sure. But you’re talking about the bottom. Who knows where the bottom is in engineering schools and comptence? Certainly not you.

    Since 2002, the test burden required for teachers is more than adequate, and has done a great deal to weed out the primary school teachers who simply weren’t competent. High school teachers have always had a test burden and their subject matter knowledge is, for the most part, completely adequate and always has been. Primary school teachers in California had only the CBEST until 2002, so you had more near-illiterates in that group (most of them URMs, sadly).

  21. “credential and a major” should be changed to “credential and a master’s degree”.

  22. Mark Roulo says:

    The vast majority of teachers in California and, I believe, everywhere get a degree in something other than education and then go into ed school to get the credential or a credential and a major.

    True (for California), but incomplete.

    A number of years ago the undergrad degree in education was eliminated in California. The new plan was a real/content 4-year degree, followed by a 5th year of teachery courses leading to a teaching credential (needed to teach in California public K-12 schools, but not private K-12, junior colleges or 4-year colleges).

    Unfortunately, one of the real/content 4-year degrees is Liberal Studies … which is essentially a 4-year “extended undeclared” degree. Very nice intro courses in many subjects, but nothing in depth (even the specialization is something like four courses in one area).

    When my wife was attending CSEB (CS Hayward, at the time), she took a number of courses along with people getting these majors. The content tended to be low (e.g. 8th grade math … exponents and bases) :-(

    So, yeah, the California teachers get a degree in “something”, but that something isn’t usually history or economics or math or biology. It is certainly *possible* for teachers-to-be do get a 4-year degree in one of these (or other!) subjects with fairly deep content. But it is much more likely that any given teacher has taken the 4-year survey route that is a Liberal Studies major. Lots of intro courses, nothing in depth.

    -Mark Roulo

  23. Mark Roulo says:

    … you have no idea if all engineering schools graduate competent engineers.

    Maybe not, but *I* do. I interview them on an irregular basis.

    In general, all engineering schools graduate some competent engineers … in the sense that any given school has probably graduated a competent engineer at some time.

    Are *ALL* the engineering graduates from a given school competent? No.

    Are *ALL* the engineering graduates from a given (accredited) school incompetent? No, not that either.

    In general, the odds of finding a competent engineer are better at the schools with the better reputations (e.g. MIT, UMich, UIUC, CalTech, …), but even the good schools occasionally graduate bozos and even the poor schools occasionally stumble on a talented student (at which point the professors tend to be very happy).

    This should not be news, though, Right?

  24. Mark, your anecdotal experience on engineers is irrelevant. (I was in computer programming before I was a teacher, so I’m well-versed in tech and interviewed on a regular, not irregular basis. ). The point is that there’s no data.

    Are *ALL* the engineering graduates from a given school competent? No.

    Are *ALL* the engineering graduates from a given (accredited) school incompetent? No, not that either.

    And this is different from teachers how, exactly? Answer: it’s not. Teachers just have more data available.
    Lots of intro courses, nothing in depth.

    So? Again, it’s not the ed schools’ fault. And there’s now a test, so you either know the material or you don’t.

    So, yeah, the California teachers get a degree in “something”, but that something isn’t usually history or economics or math or biology.

    For the umpteenth time, who cares so long as they pass the test? And also for the manyeth time, please grasp the difference between high school and primary school teachers. Most high school teachers degreed in the subject they teach. (I didn’t, but then, I passed all the tests and have an 800 quant GRE score, so who’s going to delude themselves I’m not qualified?).

    Middle school teachers, particularly in math, must now have single subject (high school) credentials, which means they have the same competency (and probably the same major). Primary school teachers probably should major in something general–if they’re really good at one subject, why teach little kids? So who cares if someone teaching 3rd graders never had calculus? It’s also true of most lawyers.

  25. I knew many prospective teachers when I was in college in the 60s and have since lived in four states and have many teachers in my family and among my friends and acquaintances. They are in both my generation and my kids’ generation. Most of the ES teachers had an undergrad major in elementary education and began teaching immediately after graduation. Most who continued to teach went on to obtain a master’s, usually a MAT, or the equivalent in ed coursework (which some states allow) but it wasn’t required. Obviously, there were advantages regarding salary and tenure decisions. California apparently does things differently, but some comments identify the same problem to which I was referring; undergraduate preparation of ES teachers does not necessarily ensure adequate subject-matter knowledge. In the absence of adequate state-level tests, this is significant.

    I am fully aware of the different requirements for MS and HS and I am not suggesting that prospective ES teachers should have calculus. I do feel strongly, however that they should have solid knowledge of math through fractions, decimals, percentages and basic algebra. They should also have solid grounding in phonics, grammar, composition, geography, history, the sciences (biology, earth/solar system, chemistry and physics) and literature. Ideally, they should ENTER their undergrad years with this knowlege, which can then be expanded and refined.

  26. I knew many prospective teachers when I was in college in the 60s

    That’s such an entirely different planet it’s not worth discussing in this context. Many women who couldn’t do anything else became teachers. They were much, much smarter than the average teacher today (who is plenty smart enough). It was much more difficult to get into college in those days and far more difficult to get a college degree.

    Most of the ES teachers had an undergrad major in elementary education and began teaching immediately after graduation…..In the absence of adequate state-level tests, this is significant.

    And, as I’ve said a couple times, that was true until the mid-80s, when they had to pass the CBEST and then in 2002, they had to pass the CSET. This is, in short, a really old problem that got fixed nearly a decade ago.

    I do feel strongly, however that they should have solid knowledge of math through fractions, decimals, percentages and basic algebra. They should also have solid grounding in phonics, grammar, composition, geography, history, the sciences (biology, earth/solar system, chemistry and physics) and literature.

    Again–and I really don’t know how many times I need to say this–they were assumed to have known that coming in (until they had to face up to the fact that many URM teachers did not), and so they were required to demonstrate this knowledge, first with course content and then, when it was clear that course content was fraudulent, with a test. In California, they have to pass part of the test before they can enter an ed program.

    Again with this, too: despite your apparent certainty, the simple reality is that in California and probably most other states, primary school teachers have been demonstrating the knowledge you list in a standardized test, no fudging, for 8 years. That’s why the teacher population has declined. So your fussing about teacher content knowledge is no longer relevant and hasn’t been for a while.

    And again, finally, back to what began this thread of discussion, it is the STATE’S responsibility to set the content knowledge requirements, not ed schools. The parallel programs are med school, law school, nursing, dental, and CPA.

    My work here is done. I trust you will cease and desist discussing what ed schools “should” do vis a vis teacher content knowledge, as you now understand that there are considerable requirements in existence–set by the state, as they should be.

    Phew.

  27. Cal; My comments include many teachers who graduated between the early-mid 90s and the early 00s and began teaching ES immediately after graduation. I will accept your statement that CA is different, but it may well not be typical of the rest of the country.