Thinking beyond numbers: Learning numeracy for the future workplace

By Beth Marr, Jan Hagston Research report 7 September 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 98 0 print; 978 1 921170 03 4 web


The use, learning and transfer of workplace numeracy skills, as well as current understandings of the term numeracy, are examined in this study. It also highlights the importance of numeracy as an essential workplace skill. The report challenges the training system and training organisations to provide numeracy training which makes links directly to workplace contexts as well as to mathematical concepts.


About the research

Through interviews with a range of stakeholders and workers in manufacturing and aged care, this study examined the use, learning and transference of workplace numeracy skills, as well as current understandings of the term ‘numeracy’. The study challenges the training system, training organisations, and trainers to provide numeracy training that makes links directly to workplace contexts.

  • Numeracy skills are vital in the workplace context and will become more so because of the increasing use of technology.

  • Many workers tacitly and competently exercise numeracy skills in the workplace, despite lacking confidence in their abilities, which is often associated with negative experiences of secondary school mathematics.

  • Numeracy skills can be extended by being framed within other workplace training, pitching them at an appropriate and attainable level and having practical application for the worker, and ideally be designed and delivered by a training team which has both adult numeracy expertise and local enterprise and industry knowledge.

Executive summary

Background and research purpose

Globalisation and technological advances are rapidly increasing workplace numeracy demands. With greater numbers of workers currently engaged in more sophisticated maths-related tasks, numeracy is now recognised by the Australian Government, industry and employer groups as an essential employability skill. In Australia, numeracy is also recognised as an equity issue, as adults with poor numeracy skills are more likely to be unemployed or have relatively low work positions with fewer promotion prospects and lower wages.

Although the term ‘numeracy’ - originally coined as the mathematical equivalent to ‘literacy’ - is used in policy and education circles, it has yet to gain popular usage or understanding in the wider community or industry. At policy and research levels, numeracy is understood to encompass the confident and thoughtful application of a broad range of mathematical skills to real-world purposes at home, in the workplace or in the community. It also includes the ability to interpret, analyse and communicate mathematically related information.

Workplace numeracy research suggests that numeracy for the workplace incorporates: the skills of measurement; number calculations; reading and interpreting diagrams; and using simple formulae. It also includes collection, analysis and interpretation of data. In addition, a ‘readiness for thought and action’ (the capacity to appreciate the purpose of numeracy-related tasks and to use numeracy skills for critical thinking, analysing situations and solving problems) has been identified as important in workplaces. This capacity relates to a personal confidence to use mathematics in appropriate situations.

Research into workplace numeracy has also identified a phenomenon described as the ‘invisibility of numeracy’ at work, meaning that numeracy is often used in a tacit or unconscious way, embedded within other tasks, although not acknowledged as numeracy.

Currently little is known about learning and transference of workplace numeracy skills, nor the understandings of the term ‘numeracy’ held by people with influence in industry, business and training. This report documents a study which sought to address these gaps with a view to identifying useful models for future numeracy skills acquisition, transfer and development.


The study was guided by themes derived from critical analysis of Australian and international research into workplace numeracy and literacy. It used semi-structured interviews with a variety of industry representatives (key stakeholders), as well as case studies of three worksites. These case study worksites were selected to represent a range of industries with different profiles in terms of employees, technology use and training cultures and included an aged care facility with a predominantly female workforce over 40 years of age; a ‘high tech’ engineering manufacturer of parts for the automotive industry, with a large, predominantly male workforce; and a small, traditional, family-owned sheetmetal engineering factory in which technology is increasingly being used. The case studies included work shadowing and interviews with workers, supervisors and managers to explore the numeracy skills used at the worksite; workers’ attitudes to numeracy and school mathematics; learning and transfer of workplace numeracy skills; and workers’ engagement with the meaning and consequences of numeracy-related tasks.

Key stakeholders and workplace managers were asked about their conceptions of numeracy, as well as their opinions on the importance of numeracy skills for the workforce, including trends that may have an impact on the current situation; the relationship between workplace numeracy and school mathematics; and effective strategies for future numeracy skills development.

Findings and implications for numeracy skills development

The study found that workers taking responsibility for their own work areas use a wide range of numeracy skills, which are often embedded and unrecognised within routine workplace tasks. In the manufacturing and aged care workplaces studied, the numeracy skills of measurement, number calculations, reading and interpreting diagrams and using simple formulae are commonly used. Interestingly, metric measurement and digital readouts have made fraction manipulation far less necessary, and division without a calculator was seldom used. A trend towards workers taking greater responsibilities within their own specialised situations is likely to necessitate even more independent use of their numeracy skills than in the past. There are also increasing expectations that workers engage in collection, display, analysis and interpretation of data - not only related to efficiency, product quality, or patient care but also to matters of occupational health and safety (OH&S). It is apparent that taking on positions of greater responsibility in the workforce will require confident use of these numeracy skills and an accompanying facility with the relevant computer software.

Unlike school mathematics practices, workplace numeracy tasks are performed using idiosyncratic methods developed within the workplace and couched in task-specific language particular to the industry or workplace. They are also performed with differing degrees of accuracy, as appropriate to the task and its consequences, with ‘in the head’ calculation strategies and estimation of measurements a common feature, especially when making judgements on the adequacy of material stocks, productions rates or occupational health and safety decisions about lifting and storage. 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.

It was also apparent from the interviews that workplaces want workers who appreciate the ‘big picture’ surrounding their work and who use their numeracy skills proactively to improve work practices. To some extent, all of the workers interviewed used individual judgement and problem-solving beyond mere repetitive or procedural use of mathematical skills within their jobs. They all showed awareness of the consequences of the numeracy-related tasks they undertook and took responsibility for their performance to the required degree of accuracy.

These observations are in accord with broad conceptions of numeracy which emphasise the confident use of judgement on the appropriate use of a range of mathematical skills. Acquiring these numeracy skills is important for all new and existing workers. However, interviews with workplace managers and key stakeholders also indicated that the single term ‘numeracy’ tends to convey a narrow picture of basic number calculations rather than the broader policy and research conceptualisations.

It is clear that, in order for numeracy to receive the necessary attention in the training agenda, it must first be extracted from within the acronym ‘LLN’ (language, literacy and numeracy) at the policy level. In addition, in order to uncover the true training needs in each industry, the scope and breadth of numeracy needs more explicit unpacking within the workplace context as it gets further from policy to practical implementation, particularly in industry training packages.

Workplace numeracy learning and training

Most workers displayed signs of anxiety when discussing secondary school mathematics education, which they saw as useless, abstract, and taught without relevance. Commonly their mathematics learning experiences have resulted in a negative self-image with respect to numeracy and a consequent lack of recognition of their existing ability. This was despite competence in the fundamental arithmetic skills of addition, subtraction and multiplication. Even when they had learned new numeracy skills in the workplace, such as complex tallying strategies and calculating freight costs, there was a tendency for the less confident to regard them as merely part of the job or ‘common sense’, perhaps because they no longer resembled mathematics learned at school. Unfortunately, tacit use of numeracy skills neither alters a negative self-image nor increases worker confidence to engage with further numeracy-related learning. It is therefore important to encourage exploration of their tacit knowledge and its conversion to ‘explicit’ knowledge. In this way workers will become more confident in using and transferring their existing skills and realising that they are capable of learning the additional skills required for positions of responsibility.

It was clear that most workers prefer training that is informal, immediate and ‘on the job’ and conducted by peers or supervisors, rather than taking the form of something which reminds them of the school environment. According to stakeholders, this is a common attitude among shopfloor and equivalent level workers, particularly in relation to maths-related skills training. Workers spoke highly of methods which gradually give them greater responsibility with support or mentoring. However, there were indications that on-the-job learning could not only be dependent on the quality of the particular trainer, but also highly procedural and without the depth of understanding required for the innovative thinking needed in the workplace. Stakeholders were unanimously in support of a combination of ‘on floor’ and ‘off floor’ training but, to ensure that workers’ existing attitudes to mathematics were overcome, emphasised the importance of its being extremely practical, preferably undertaken in conjunction with immediate workplace applications and incorporating opportunities for practice and reflection. Stakeholders also suggested that, ideally, workplace numeracy training should be framed positively within training for new workplace initiatives rather than being catch-up or ‘deficit model’ training. It was also suggested that training should be undertaken in a non-threatening atmosphere, with a spirit of employer support and pitched at an appropriate and attainable level.

Such training would need the input of trainers with adult numeracy expertise and sound knowledge of the local enterprise. A team approach which combines these areas of knowledge at both the design and delivery stages of training programs would be ideal. However, consultation between an adult numeracy specialist and a local enterprise trainer to design the training, followed by ongoing communication during delivery, would be another effective way of accomplishing a team approach. It is possible that the team approach to training may be impractical for smaller registered training organisations and enterprises. In such instances it will be essential to provide professional development to enable trainers to increase their skills in adult numeracy training in order to ensure quality delivery. This may also mitigate the seeming shortage of workplace numeracy specialists.



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