Wednesday 13 May 2020 6:00 am

Numeracy skills remain the key to a better life

Fiona is Director of Customer Retail at Amazon UK

As a parent under lockdown, I count myself among the many thousands of people who have added ‘home schooling’ to their list of responsibilities at home, at least temporarily. I take my hat off to teachers who do this normally. Reflecting on the way we educate children and engage them in a subject like numeracy, many more of us will have become aware of the challenges involved in building and maintaining core skills. These are skills which set the next generation on a path into the future world of work.

But as we celebrate National Numeracy Day, I was reminded of some shocking statistics about the reality of numeracy in the UK.

Independent charity National Numeracy reported that low numeracy costs the economy around £3.2bn per year, nearly half of all working-age adults have the numeracy level of a primary school child, and three quarters of working adults would struggle to pass a maths GCSE.

That represents a serious challenge for both employers and employees alike – especially when considering the extent to which numeracy underpins the technology that shapes the modern world.

Growing up in the 80s, I loved number driven subjects like Maths and Science and remember the joy of applying the mathematical principles to build real things – like designing a bridge or a circuit to power a lightbulb. Those ‘eureka moments’ set me on a career path in engineering that has taken me to some weird and wonderful places – from exploring Manchester’s sewer network to championing diversity and inclusion at one of the world’s biggest companies. Each area of my career has involved problem solving and none of that would have been possible without a good grounding in numeracy.

Maths can be a powerful tool for understanding the world around us and devising solutions that help build a better world. At this very moment, leading scientists are applying mathematic principles to better understand the coronavirus and define our response to it. 

At Amazon, every stage of a customer’s order is underpinned by applied mathematics – from the first click to the delivery at your doorstep. In fact, maths is the vital foundation for our workforce to meaningfully innovate.

Automation, for example, is changing so many facets of life and it’s exciting to see the leaps in technology. At Amazon, we are investing in research and development that provides assisted and collaborative autonomy to extend the human reach and capability in a manner that will make tasks more efficient or non-existent, allowing our skilled associates to re-allocate their abilities to more sophisticated duties. 

This intricate system means your order finds its way to your house from a building containing up to ten million other items. Every stage of that process requires employees with good numeracy skills. And each new innovation, in areas such as robotics and Artificial Intelligence, creates new demand for specialist technicians. That means a continuous flow of new skills, new jobs and exciting new career opportunities.

At the same time, maths plays a role in all our everyday lives. You might be measuring the front room for a new sofa, budgeting the weekly food shop or splitting the bill over dinner. Good numeracy also helps us find the best deals on financial products like mortgages, business loans and insurance.

So to build a strong workforce of numeracy-empowered people, we all need to take action both collectively and individually.  

At Amazon, that includes our work to build a pipeline of future computer scientists with the creation of Amazon Future Engineer last year – a classroom-to-career learning programme designed to engage young people from low-income backgrounds with computer science, and supporting National Numeracy Day.

National Numeracy Day is all about reframing attitudes and abilities around numeracy and is a cause we’ve supported for a number of years. In light of COVID-19, the National Numeracy Day charity has launched a new Virtual Festival focused on helping children to learn at home and improving self-confidence and skills. Their Numeracy Challenge is a great first step to building yours and your family’s numeracy skills.

Whether you are a parent, a young person planning your career, or even considering a career change once the lockdown ends, the value of numeracy has never been higher. 

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