Trends & Impressions

The purpose of this chapter is to delineate and summarize, in an anecdotal way, the important issues in mathematics education raised by this project. The authors shot more than three hours of video of eight major industries and businesses in Macon, Smith, Sumner, and Trousdale counties. We surveyed fifty other area industries by mail, and spoke extensively with more than forty people -- from those who direct the fate of their companies to those who simply do its bidding. The following trends emerged, unanimously.

Growing Sophistication of Entry Level Jobs

At R.R. Donnelly and Sons Company, a printing business, entry level jobs used to revolve around the loading of printed materials onto trucks. The company is now moving toward the use of robots to do this task. In the near future, an entry level person will have to have the skill necessary to operate robotic machinery. There will still be entry level jobs in the future, but they will, in the words of one supervisor, require "more brains and less brawn." Several representatives said that it only makes sense for companies to eliminate as many unskilled positions as possible. This means that those who have good mathematics skills will stand a better chance of being employed.

More Mathematics Means More Money

The authors asked each management person if taking more mathematics courses translated into making more money. All emphatically said yes. Machines are the life blood of any industry, and they must be reliable if the company is to make a profit. Those who keep those machines running have some mathematical know how and, as one human resource director put it, are not "afraid of a little math." These people are also at the top of the pay scale. As far as advancement goes, passing a mathematics test is often the key to a promotion even if mathematics is not used extensively in the job being sought. (One such test is found in Appendix D.) One of the continuing refrains heard on this project was the desire for employees who are "teachable." Although educators and learning theorists may debate just what it is that makes someone "teachable" or "trainable," many employers in the industrial sector think they know what it is -- a solid background in mathematics.

Problem Solving Above All

What do those people engaged in industrial technology consider to be a solid background in mathematics? Specifically, they mentioned ratios, percentages, percents, reading an SPC chart, algebra, and especially word problems. More than one industry representative spoke at length about the value of "thinking through a process." People in technology need to solve problems almost on a daily basis. These problems all come as words and have some context. It is not enough to be able to find eight percent of a number. What really matters is to be able to analyze a problem and to determine that calculating eight percent of the number is the correct thing to do in a given situation. Everyone interviewed thought that algebra, with its "story problems," served to develop this type of problem solving skill that is highly valued on the job. One human resource director stated that although he "suffered through two semesters of statistics and calculus," he can now see the secondary benefit of that experience in his current job.

Working in Groups

Not only should someone in the technological industries be able to solve problems, but he or she should be able to coordinate his or her efforts with fellow workers. In industry, there is complete faith in the "team concept." Many companies have eliminated a great deal of middle management. This means that people on a production line develop their own budget, troubleshoot glitches in the process, and generally solve their own problems. This is true of the health care industry as well. All of the health care professionals interviewed on this project saw themselves as part of a team that diagnoses a problem and develops a solution. This idea has obvious implications for the mathematics classroom. Getting four or five students to actively participate together in the solution of a "story problem" could accurately simulate the future for at least two of them.

Not Everybody Becomes a Doctor or a Lawyer or; There is Life With Less Than a Bachelor's Degree

There are good jobs in industry. Unfortunately many students in high school and college are unaware of them. Many of the representatives talked about the fact that they never saw themselves in their current jobs. One of the most frequent reasons they gave for that was that they did not know that the job existed. One person in the road paving business stated that there was definitely a lucrative future in it for a young person. It is perceived by many young people as just the opposite. Paving roads does involve being out in all types of weather and is not a white collar job.

The good news is that there are many jobs in technological and health care industries with excellent prospects. None of these jobs require a bachelor's degree. They do require some specialized post-secondary training, and mathematics is a vital component of that training. There are many two-year programs in the health care industry, for example, which produce registered nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, and MRI technicians to name just a few. In the manufacturing and technology sectors there is a need for various types of technicians and engineering assistants who can receive their training in programs such as the Bosch program described elsewhere in this document.

Industry is Committed to Lifelong Learning

Every industry interviewed for this project had some type of incentive program for employees to continue their education. Employment in technology and health care is not a stagnant condition. One does not simply "go to work at the factory" and cease to learn new things. Industry is increasingly doing more training of its own and in partnership with nearby community colleges and vocational schools. Old jobs are being eliminated and new jobs created at a rapid pace. The new jobs require more sophistication. This means more mathematics and computer skills. Very often an employee can receive tuition reimbursement if he or she takes courses that improve job performance and earns a grade of C or better.

Not everyone is able to go to college immediately after high school or go to law, medical, nursing, or engineering school immediately after college. Why not take advantage of opportunities that exist in industry and technology for those with a good mathematical background? Jobs in technology can pay much better than minimum wage and can provide more money to pay for further education. Job experience in industry is valuable to anyone no matter what their ultimate profession may be.

Tangent Issues

There were several issues that the authors came across in this project that, while not within the strict scope of the grant, bear some discussion here and are set forth below.

Computer Skills and the Graphing Calculator

Whenever representatives discussed the need for mathematics skills, they always emphasized the importance of computer skills as well. However, they regarded the graphing calculator with bemusement if at all. On the job, whatever cannot be done with a scientific calculator is done with computer software. Although a convenient tool for the classroom teacher and a subject of some controversy as to its proper use, the graphing calculator is viewed by people in the industries as a non-essential tool.

Women Should Take More Mathematics

Many people still think of industry and technology as a man's game. This is not so. Every woman interviewed stated that she was either glad that she took four years of mathematics in high school or that she was sorry that she did not. There are job opportunities for women in all of the industries surveyed in this project. The authors even spoke to a woman who operates heavy machinery for road paving, and she expressed a great deal of job satisfaction. All of the women interviewed told the authors to encourage young women to take every mathematics course possible.

Mathematical Skill is not Everything

Every supervisor and human resource director spoke repeatedly of the need for prospective employees to develop interpersonal and communication skills. These skills are the most important of all. Even a mathematics prodigy is not as useful to a company if he or she cannot communicate well with co-workers and supervisors.

Teachers Make a Difference

Many representatives expressed gratitude to their former teachers. One engineer remembered his fourth-grade teacher using flash cards to teach the multiplication tables. One supervisor remembered a business mathematics teacher for the way that he taught percentage using base, rate, and portion -- a method he still uses today on the job. An emergency medical technician remembered her mathematics teacher's patience with those who were having a hard time. She also remembered how clearly her algebra teacher wrote equations on the board. Even in the small things that teachers do they influence students, sometimes far more than they know. Another representative who works in advanced technology remembered those teachers who "made it (learning) fun."

...And In Conclusion

The authors hope that this project will encourage teachers, students, and those from business and industry to communicate with each other on a variety of topics. Of course the sharing of mathematics applications is fundamental to this grant activity, but communication about job opportunities, job expectations, teacher resources, job shadowing, visitation by classes to job sites, and other such topics is also important. All of the industry representatives that the authors spoke with encouraged teachers to bring their classes to the job site to observe firsthand the kinds of jobs that are available.

The authors hope that people from both business and education will use the website created by this project to discuss shared concerns and solve common problems.