The Essential Skill of Numeracy

Rapidly growing technological advances are making the need for numeracy skills more critical within the workplace. With greater numbers of workers engaging in more sophisticated tasks, numeracy is recognised as an essential employability skill. Also, it has been acknowledged as a potential employment equity issue, as adults with poor numeracy skills are more likely to have relatively low work positions with fewer promotion prospects and lower wages.


Numeracy is the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations.[1] It involves developing confidence and competence with logic and reasoning, and requires an understanding of how data are gathered and presented in diagrams, graphs, tables and charts.[2]  


While numeracy involves all dimensions of mathematics and is the type of skill needed to function in everyday life, it is more than just numbers. Innumeracy is considered the mathematical counterpart of illiteracy and is a socially based activity, as it requires the ability to integrate math and communication skills. It is intricately linked to language, as words are the tools for translating numerical code and giving it meaning.[3]


In the workplace, it is the ability of the individual to manage a situation or solve a problem in a real-life context using mathematics. The consequences of innumeracy are not as visible or obvious as those of illiteracy, and appear more socially acceptable and tolerated. Innumeracy tends to affect people who are both intelligent and well-educated unlike illiteracy which mostly affects the uneducated.


The cost of innumeracy to society in terms of bad decisions made on the basis of misunderstood math and misinterpreted risk is great. A 2005 study found that 42% of adult Canadians have literacy and numeracy skills below the level necessary to succeed in society and economy, exerting a negative influence on the overall GDP per capita. Higher levels of literacy and numeracy, on the other hand, can increase employment while cutting debt and dependence on welfare and public health services.[4] Statistics Canada estimates that a 1% increase in average literacy and numeracy skills would raise GDP per capita by 1.5%, and labour productivity by 2.5%.[5] A lack of employee literacy and numeracy skills is also of particular concern for businesses, costing employers $4 Bn per year and $10 Bn for the nation as a whole.[6]


As a society, we inherently reward higher literacy. The assumption that better educated people have superior literacy and numeracy skills garners little disagreement. In fact, there is an expectation by employers that higher education graduates will possess high literacy and numeracy skills along with a high level of academic achievement. Those who are marginal to the labour market, however, such as the longer term unemployed, tend to have more significant problems in these areas.


At each level of competency an average employee can expect to earn more than someone the next step down the ladder.[7] On the other hand, poor numeracy can reduce employment opportunities, affect career progress and equity and cause overdependence on experts and professionals.[8] Productivity is also affected when employees are unwilling or slow to take on new tasks or to get involved in training either because of a lack of understanding or fear of math-related skills required. These related inequalities do not only affect earnings but can heavily influence work related and personal spending and investment decisions.


Workplace numeracy, literacy and employability skills are often used in conjunction with one another. The required skills often overlap and are necessary for any task, for example, completing a job might entail gathering and analysing information; using number or mathematical skills; reporting; using computers; working within a team setting; and possibly demonstrating some initiative.[9]


Many occupations use numeracy that requires accuracy in the actual job tasks and capability in the language, by use of appropriate terminology and industry-related jargon. Explanation, elaboration and analysis, for example, are frequently presented along with numbers. As such, there is a language challenge that needs to be considered in numeracy tasks. Other numeracy issues that arise in the workplace can include too much reliance on calculators for simple mathematical tasks, inappropriate language used in email correspondence and fear of giving presentations due to a lack of communication skills. A very small part of the mathematical activities in workplaces actually count as visible numeracy.[10]


The inability to interpret numerical information can be financially costly, can limit full citizen or employee participation and result in economic manipulation.[11] Like people with low levels of literacy, those lacking numeracy skills sometimes manage to avoid using math, relying on social support networks and coping tricks adapted to their environment. [12] With modern technology, being saturated by numbers and advancing exponentially, the mathematical skills and understanding needed to fulfill a job function has become more invisible.[13] But although technology has allowed organizational demands for mathematical skills to decrease, the importance and need for mathematical understanding is increasing.


Addressing the training needs of employees with literacy and numeracy difficulties is daunting, as even raising the issue can be embarrassing. Renewed emphasis is being placed on numeracy skills to enhance their employability, job satisfaction, level of remuneration and community participation. Numerical aptitude tests are becoming an essential part of the application process for professional jobs. These tests demonstrate a candidate’s ability to deal with numbers quickly and accurately. The results provide additional information in candidate selection. Programs have been developed to assist with identifying gaps before employees enter the workforce. Implemented in Calgary, the Test of Workplace Essential Skills uses the skill rating system that test in prose literacy, document literacy, innumeracy and problem-solving. Respondents are rated on a scale of one to five, with a score of three considered a requirement to fully participate in the world’s ‘knowledge economy.’[15]


Although the numeracy skills are adapted to specific strategies for each industry, they tend to be based on an underpinning of skills developed through a range of prior learning experiences and, in many cases, transferred between workplaces and life situations.[16] Numeracy is not a skill or fixed entity that can be earned. Instead, people’s skills are situated along a continuum of different purposes and levels of accomplishment with numbers.[17]


While poor numeracy imposes difficulties for functioning in all areas of life and represents a problem in the modern working world, targeting these skills is likely to be a particularly important solution to the risk of employability. Employees need to be proficient in the basics of numeracy to be able to fully participate in the workforce and further education and training opportunities. Raising the levels of these skills are vital and will lead to a more flexible, skilled and adaptable workforce, increased productivity and a competitive edge for businesses. Workplace projects will have a very positive effect by improving communication, and employees’ ability to complete workplace documentation, as well as reduced workplace errors and absenteeism, and improved staff retention and quality.

Written by: Vikki Ali

[1] Ginsburg, L. The Components of Numeracy. 2006
[2] Fibonicci. Numeracy
[3] Kerka, Sandra. Not just a Number: Critical Numeracy for Adults. 1995
[4] Bailey, John. You wouldn’t read about it. 2009
[5] Coulombe, Serge. Tremblay, J.F. Literacy scores, human capital and growth across fourteen OECD countries. 2004.
[6] Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Importance of Literacy and Numeracy Skills
[7] Bailey, John. You wouldn’t read about it. 2009
[8] Dewdney, A.K. 200% of nothing. 1993
[9] Townsend, Ray, Waterhouse, Peter. Whose responsibility? Employers’ views on developing their workers’ literacy, numeracy and employability skills. 2008
[10] Wedege, Tine. Mathematics at work: researching adults’ mathematics-containing competences. 2000
[11] Kerka, Sandra. Not Just a Number: Critical Numeracy for Adults. 1995
[12] Steen, L.A. Numeracy. 1990
[13] Noss, R. New Numeracies for a Technological Culture. 1998
[14] Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Importance of Literacy and Numeracy Skills.
[15] Kenter, Peter. Construction workforce lagging in numeracy skills. 2007
[16] Marr, Beth. Thinking beyond numbers: Learning numeracy for the future workplace. 2007
[17] Steen, L.A. Numeracy. 1990