No math, no job

High-tech manufacturers are hiring, but many job applicants don’t have required math skills.

North American Tool Corp.’s Jim Hoyt has two openings right now . . .

“I’ll write a few numbers down, mostly numbers with decimal points, because that’s what we use in manufacturing, and have them add them or subtract them, or divide by two,” Hoyt says. Job applicants often can’t do the math.

Manufacturers are “growing our own” workers using a system of “stackable” credentials.

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  1. Why is this a surprise to anyone, you want to work in high tech fields, you had better know how to do math well (at least through algebra at a minimum)…


  2. Mark Roulo says:

    I think the issue is that lots of folks don’t think that *using* a CNC machine is high-tech. And don’t realize that you need moderately good math skills to do it.

  3. Perhaps the HR department should post a notice:

    CNC machining is high tech and requires a working knowledge of algebra and trigonometry, which will be tested before a employment offer is made. Individuals with these skills are encouraged to apply (M/F/D/V).

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In my area, there are some machine shops that will pay for your CC classes in trig if you can just handle basic decimals, fractions, and arithmatic. And this is why the math wars won’t end. We’re not looking for mathematicians. We’d be mollified if high school graduates could handle basic ‘ciphering’

  5. Deirdre,

    Sounds like the basics you describe are what students in my generation learned in grades 1-5 by endless drills, flash cards, and repetition until it was pretty much automatic you could do this stuff in your head (late 60’s, early 70’s)…

  6. A little more time on spent on Whiteness Studies would have fixed this right up, wouldn’t it have?

  7. I suspect if he told the applicants that there’d be a math test, they’d pass. So why not tell them and allow them to prepare? There’s a catch in there somewhere. This is a guy who doesn’t want to hire. He’s got a cause.

    • GEORGE LARSON says:


      “I suspect if he told the applicants that there’d be a math test, they’d pass. So why not tell them and allow them to prepare? There’s a catch in there somewhere. This is a guy who doesn’t want to hire. He’s got a cause.”

      Are you sure? Asking a high school graduate to do arithmetic clearly related to the job with no prior warning does not sound unreasonable to me.

      I also know that any lawyer can file a lawsuit, and they can still file a lawsuit after failing the requirement several times. I think the term is nuisance lawsuit.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “I suspect if he told the applicants that there’d be a math test, they’d pass. So why not tell them and allow them to prepare?”

      We now enter into the world of hiring law, which can be odd.

      If the employer actually gives a test (as opposed to asking the candidates to do something … and, yes, the line is fuzzy), then the employer can be sued for discrimination. And the default in court for this kind of case is that the employer is wrong unless (a) the test is given to everyone, and (b) the test has been statistically shown to correlate to job performance.

      This guy would fail (b), and he would lose the lawsuit. Meeting (b) is expensive. And the fact that the test is for stuff that is *obvious* to doing the job is no defense.

      So he can’t tell the applicants that there will be a test, because this risks handing the future lawyers for the applicants an automatic win.

      What he *can* do is to mention that specific math is required for the job (e.g. “fluency with decimal addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division is required”).

      But warning that the applicants will be expected to *show* that they can do this math is asking for trouble.

      The question then becomes: Would the applicants study up on the math given the description above?

      NOTE: I’m not a hiring manager, but I interview a lot of candidates. The company I work for sent me to a “Hiring Within the Law” class a number of years ago. This is part of what I learned.

      • George Larson says:

        So there is no way to verify if a candidate has the needed math skills unless they have an employment history that show they did the job successfully before?

        • Mark Roulo says:

          Legally, it seems like a grey area.

          You can’t give the same test to everyone. You can ask people questions …

      • Good Lord, lawyers are totally destroying this country… This makes me angry and sad at the same time.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    The quota for eminently reasonable snark having been used up, herewith a couple of questions/suggestions:
    Suppose the employer is planning on/resigned to training the employee. He could say, we don’t care about your diploma. Means nothing usefult to us. Your senior year isn’t good for anything but the prom. Drop out and we’ll take care of a real education for you. Or your Associates Degree, for that matter. And imagine what dating would be like when you have a real job with a real paycheck and your buddies are flipping burgers and trying to get into Small State U.
    Suppose some enterprising educational entrepreneur put together a course including syllabi and whatnot and sold it or franchised it to employers who have other things on their mind than teaching youngsters. Show up with the material and get a couple of hours a day in the conference room with the new guys. Wonder what you could charge for that.
    Any possibility that these certs could be fitted in with external conventional educational accomplishments. If you get a cert–which presumes some fixed level of competence–in practical math for machinists from Acme Machining, can you get a waiver on Math 101 in college, should the idea of college be attractive? You could probably comp out of it, I suppose, but a waiver would be more convenient.

  9. Mark,

    Good lord, I never thought of Griggs vs. Duke. That’s exactly why, of course. Thanks.

    Of course, then this guy is actually doing a run around of the law.

    • Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t.

      I haven’t divided a number with decimals in over 27 years without a calculator, yet tonight to test myself I successfully divided pi (taken out five decimal places) by two. I didn’t need to review to do it.

      Now, Mr. Hoyt says that skill is necessary for his workers. You want to ignore the elephant in the living room by debating whether or not he’s breaking the law.

      You’re missing it.

  10. I don’t think that the need for machinists to be able to calculate is something that was created by the emergence of CNC machine tools. In the olden days, with manual machine tools, a fully-qualified machinist certainly needed these skills. Then as now, people who were merely operating production equipment for which the setup was done by someone else needed lesser skill levels. But someone who could take a print and turn it into a part certainly needed to be able to do arithmetic using decimals, at a minimum.

    So what we’re seeing isn’t so much higher skill requirements created by technology, but rather lower skill achievements created by dysfunctional schools.

  11. The is the result of all of the teachers I’ve seen here over the years arguing that math is over emphasized in school. They argue that they never need much math in their daily lives, so why concentrate on it in school so much? The fact is that all sorts of jobs use math, not just CNC operators, yet high school graduates are increasingly deficient in the skills.

    There are some things that just need to be learned by drill. We never question this in athletics, for example, but with math we call it “drill and kill”.

    Next time you read an article about “structural unemployment”, remember this article.

    • English teachers and former English teachers seem to dominate the education landscape. It’s no surprise that they suck at math, hate it, and don’t think it’s useful. We need to stop using the term “master educator” and pretend that it applies to all disciplines. This is how most of these crazy practices came to infect our schools.

  12. That’s okay. 75% of high school students don’t meet the requirements to enlist in the Armed Forces.

    That doesn’t seem to trigger any outrages. It is however, a more holistic measure that includes physical fitness, criminal background, drug use and grades.

  13. This is not a new problem. I discovered in the early 1960s that very few of the high school graduates that we hired could actually deal with simple fractions.

    The work-around was to employ a skilled machinist to build jigs for the unskilled to use in fabricating parts. The downside, of course, is that those without math weren’t going to rise above low-end machine operator status (and pay).

    CNC has greatly increased productivity; it’s also eliminating jobs for those with no math skills. And the ‘new math’ and it’s misbegotten offspring have yielded a generation with no computational skills.

    And a calculator is no substitute. If you don’t understand the underlying process you have no clue when the calculator’s answer is off by several orders of magnitude.