No math, no job

Weak math skills disqualify would-be workers, manufacturers say.

High school graduates applying for jobs at Tacoma’s General Plastics Manufacturing have to take a math test. The company makes foam products for the aerospace industry.

Eighteen questions, 30 minutes, and using a calculator is OK.

They are asked how to convert inches to feet, read a tape measure and find the density of a block of foam (mass divided by volume).

One in 10 pass the math test. And it’s not just a problem at General Plastics.

“Manufacturers are willing to train people about the specifics of their machines and technology,” said Linda Nguyen, CEO of Work Force Central, a partnership of government, business, education and community organizations that trains workers in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County. “But they can’t afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math.”

Math teachers know their students will need math knowledge in the real word, writes Darren, a high school math teacher, on Right on the Left Coast. But he’s turned off by the story’s “drooling over Common Core Standards. Many teachers  “doubt . . .  the so-called cure.”

Having students write about math isn’t a real cure.  Group work isn’t a cure.  Collaboration requires everyone have some background knowledge on which to draw so everyone can contribute.  I wouldn’t mind cutting a few topics out so we had more time to cover the remaining topics more deeply, but to insist on so-called discovery learning is an exceedingly inefficient use of instructional time.

Instead of trying to make math “fun” or “applicable”, perhaps we could consider instilling in students, or insisting on, some perseverance and a sense of responsibility, and maybe even some delayed gratification.

Employers would value those traits too, Darren believes.

Many students who slid through high school without really learning math enroll at community colleges with hopes of training for a job or eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Placement in remedial math is the single biggest dream killer.

About Joanne


  1. Thanks for the (entirely unexpected) link 🙂

  2. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the skills they’re asking for are stuff that most kids 25+ years ago learned by the time they reached 4th or 5th grade.

    Using a tape measure, converting inches to feet, and calculating density is stuff that I remember learning how to do (without a calculator, since the scientific ones (affordable) didn’t exist prior to 1979 or so) and if the rest of the math is like that, I could probably do all 18 questions inside of 5 minutes (or less).

    I’m in agreement with Darren, if you go to a college and wind up in remedial math, you’ll probably spend a year learning material that by definition you should have learned in high school, and usually become discouraged.


    • “This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the skills they’re asking for are stuff that most kids 25+ years ago learned by the time they reached 4th or 5th grade.”

      This is almost certainly not true to any greater extent than it would be true today. What likely IS true is that this material was TAUGHT by 4th or 5th grade, as it is today. Successful math students would be able to complete these tasks during that grade level, which is also true today. Whether students were able to retain the relevant information or skills beyond the exam is another question. Given that we know US math proficiency doesn’t seem to be declining over time as measured by any objective set of data I know of (NAEP scores or the like), it seems likely that what we have here is selection bias generated by those who were successful projecting their success onto all students of their schooling generation.

  3. Darren presents both a straw man argument and a false dichotomy. The straw man argument is that discovery-learning is solely about making math fun or applicable (not sure what is up with the scare quotes in the original). In fact, discovery-based learning works from the idea that if students build knowledge themselves, it is more likely they will retain that knowledge for anything more than regurgitation on a unit test. To be fair, it is also nice when we can make mathematics relevant and fun, as that also seems likely to increase retention compared to irrelevant and boring lessons, but it isn’t the point.

    The false dichotomy comes from the idea that we can either require students to be critical thinkers with the ability to collaborate and discuss mathematics cogently or we can require them to persevere and have responsibility. It seems pretty obvious that we should be able to do both. In fact, most discovery-based lessons require higher levels of perseverance because they make the student responsible for learning material with guidance instead of giving them a list of procedures to follow without thought.

  4. In reading the article, a comment from a teacher says:

    they are expected to master the Algebra II topics of solving systems of equations, using matrices, and using functional notation to represent real-world applications.

    My question, how did these students get into Algebra II without a solid mastery of what the teacher terms as 4th grade math skills. I’m not a math major, but I had to take a boatload of it in high school and college, and math is a foundation, without basic skills, you really cannot understand (or master) the higher concepts.

    As my old 9th grade algebra I teacher commented in class:

    You guys and gals have no problem handling algebra, you simply cannot add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

    Truer words were never spoken 🙂

  5. Brett,

    Well, given that employers state that only 1 in 10 actually pass the required exam handle the job requirements, i’d have to say that students (who may or may NOT have any parental support when it comes to basic math skills) aren’t measuring up to what industry expects.

    IMO, a high school graduate might never use Algebra II/trig i n the workplace, but they had better understand basic math concepts (I occasionally tutor nursing students, and I find that for many of them, their basic math skills are lacking as well).

    There’s a huge difference between 20 micrograms and 20 milligrams in terms of dosage (one dosage might save an infant, the other will kill an infant). That’s what basic math is all about (the fact that it’s in metric vs imperial units is besides the point).

    • Bill,
      I am pretty sure I don’t disagree with anything in your last comment. My point is simply that applied/practical math skills weren’t really that good in decades past, either, at least I haven’t seen any measure that supports that claim.

      As to your comment above about how you get through Algebra 1 and 2 without basic skills, take a look back at what the employer wanted. The problems we ARE seeing is students with the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but have next to no ability to work in contextual situations. In my mind, this is a predictable result of the fact that most of us math teachers work abstract computations a ton, but spend relatively little time working with students to understand contextual situations. Even when we DO provide students with applications to work, they are almost always by type and students simply try to mimic the teacher (or an example from the text that is almost identical) and don’t really make sense of the problem. I am, however, in the minority among secondary math teachers, from what I can tell.

  6. Why is it that these stories almost never provide details about the compensation being offered for the positions that they simply can’t find qualified people to fill?

    If they are offering minimum wage without benefits, e.g., I have a solution that’ll work much faster for them than attempting to reform K-12 math education.

    • This type of job typically pays above minimum wage, given the company manufactures stuff for defense/military work.

      I’d say the jobs are probably into $17-20 hour range, just at a glance.

      Also, since these are probably entry level (for this particular company) jobs, it’s quite possible the employees have opportunity for advancement, or by definition with additional skills have the potential to earn more at other firms in the future.

      • Assuming you’re right, here’s another really simple thing they could do to improve their odds: write the listing so it describes the math skills that are required. I know we Americans are lazy and dumb, but I bet there’re at least a few enterprising individuals in the Tacoma area who would take it upon themselves to learn the kind of math they’d need for the job.

        Or they can keep the listing the way it is, continue to attract unprepared candidates, and have lots of time to talk when a reporter calls to ask about the worth of a high-school degree.

        • Tim – missing the point. The ad says “high school diploma or GED.”

          Unless it’s your contention that a high school diploma is so worthless that employer’s can’t assume any math competency at all? Which says a lot right there.

        • Tim,

          While I haven’t clicked on the link, I’d imagine that high school graduate (or equiv.) is a posted requirement, and that being said, the skills being tested for are things any high school graduate should know how to do, long before they reach high school.

          There is a huge problem in education when GPA’s and actual ability/knowledge doesn’t match (i.e. – A student gets A/B in Algebra II/Trig, and scores 12 in Math on the ACT).

          That right there would be an immediate red flag that they don’t understand the material in question, but the grades they receive say otherwise…

          I just clicked on the link, and all of the skills listed were stuff I learned how to do in a 8th grade class called Industrial Arts (which was a required course for boys and girls, along with Home Economics) where we learned how to use a band saw, power tools, hand tools, wood and metalworking, along with standard welding (oxy-fuel), spot welding, and tungsten.

          This was circa 1977, in case you were wondering, and yes, I still know how to oxy-fuel weld.

  7. “Many students who slid through high school without really learning math enroll at community colleges with hopes of training for a job or eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Placement in remedial math is the single biggest dream killer.”

    No, placement in remedial is the most appropriate response; we wouldn’t want the CCs to continue the charade. The lack of math skills is the dream killer; the lack of motivation and initiative throughout K-12 is the knife.

    • Curmudgeon,

      The question that taxpayers should be asking is (since community colleges are heavily taxpayer subsidized):

      Why should we (as taxpayers) have to pay twice, or perhaps to correct the problem, we should implement a surcharge on any remedial coursework a student needs, so instead of it being say 60 a credit hour for a remedial math course, it would be 120 a credit hour, and wouldn’t be eligible to be paid for by any scholarship (HOPE, Pell Grant, etc).

      IMO, there was a TIME in history where having a college education actually meant a level of knowledge greater than high school.

      Another post on the site shows that 80% of NY state’s high school graduates require remediation.

      If I were handling admissions, I would be using surcharges, or simply denying them admission (why admit students who will most likely not be able to complete the coursework, certification, or degree).

      Perhaps this is harsh, but typically, students needing an excessive amount of remediation will usually drop out by the end of the first year, when they’ve found that all of the coursework they’ve taken doesn’t apply towards a degree, and just prepares them to take the coursework which is a pre-req to being admitted.

      • If the colleges actually had an admissions process that weeded out unqualified students, it might help the K12 teachers. As it is, they are so desperate for tuitions that “anyone can apply and succeed” is the mantra of most community colleges and state colleges.

  8. Lisa,

    A strong foundation in math can open a LOT of doors in life. I had to take a lot of courses in high school I didn’t like (English comes to mind), but as time went on, I found my communication skills had to be on par with my technical skills.

    I just wish more students understood how important being able to read, write, and math will serve them later in life.