Applicants lack math skills, employers say

As economy recovers, firms have a hard time finding suitable staff
2013-04-04T00:00:00Z Applicants lack math skills, employers sayRenee Schoof Mcclatchy Newspapers Arizona Daily Star
April 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Before job-seekers fill out an application for work making foam products for the aerospace industry at General Plastics Manufacturing Co. in Tacoma, Wash., they have to take a math test.

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).

Basic middle school math, right?

But what troubles General Plastics executive Eric Hahn is that although the company considers only prospective workers who have a high school education, only one in 10 who take the test pass.

And that's not just bad luck at a single factory or in a single industry.

Hahn, vice president of organizational development, said that the poor scores on his company's math test have been evident for the past six years.

He also sits on an aerospace workforce training committee and said that most other Washington state suppliers in his industry have been seeing the same problem.

"You could think that even for production, do you really need to know math?" said Jacey Wilkins, a spokeswoman for the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. "But the truth is, you do, because these jobs are incredibly complex and integrate multiple functions and systems."

Indeed, in working with machinery and making products with precision, "people really do need a basic understanding of math," she said.

But math has been a problem.

The United States ranks below average in math compared with other developed countries and regions participating in the Program for International Student Assessment test.

The National Math and Science Initiative, a group working to improve student performance in science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM subjects, noted, as well, that 54 percent of high school graduates aren't ready to go on in math. The figure is based on students who took ACT's "college and career readiness" exam in 2012.

As the economy begins to perk up and businesses start to hire, a lack of basic knowledge about mathematics could present a problem to people looking for work.

"Manufacturers are willing to train people about the specifics of their machines and technology," said Linda Nguyen, CEO of Work Force Central, which trains workers in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County. "But they can't afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math."

Educators are aware of what manufacturers like General Plastics face. They're looking for ways to make math relate to the real world so students will grasp why it's necessary and stick with it. Some want to change the way it's taught.

Math learning will change with the Common Core standards, a state-led effort to set educational standards in math and English for kindergarten through high school. Forty-five states - including Arizona - have adopted them.

They'll match with what students need to know for success in college and jobs, said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Math and Technology Education Center.

"In the hands of a trained professional," Houston said, "the Common Core should give everyone a better means to answer the question, 'Why do I need to know this?' "

For manufacturers like Hahn, changes in teaching math can't come soon enough.

"Manpower training for manufacturing is a critical issue right now," he said.

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