Scotland the blog: How new knowledge of numbers help Irene take the biscuit and get a quality job

> We should support people who are both anxious and curious to learn these skills... Anxiety and ambition are equally powerful drivers for learning

Years ago, whilst at Glasgow University I was tutoring in an adult literacy and numeracy class in Govan. I was going through phonetics cards with Irene who was probably in her early forties, and was clearly bored and embarrassed. She made barely audible signs of acknowledging each card, and I knew I was fighting a losing battle. This was confirmed when she said 'this is doing ma head in' (strengthening adjective omitted).

To my standard request 'is there anything else you would like to work on?', she took from her bag a grubby piece of paper and said 'I could dae wi help on this quality thing'. It transpired that the cake factory she worked in wanted to promote her to supervisor. It meant a decent rise of about a fifth in pay and new status. But to land the job she had to learn the quality management technique of statistical process control. This was before union learning reps who are great at identifying this kind of need and dealing with it. So what could she do?

She might have got help from her boss. But she told me her production manager was unsympathetic "He telt me should know this it's basic averages'. I know he might as well have said 'it's not difficult it's basic second order differential calculus'. (Something which was said to me as I struggled to adapt to economics with a basic secondary education but that's another tangent!)

A young person I knew in London was shocked to find that her environmental science degree involved calculations of particulates in the air and the use of standard form and logarithms to graph them. On probing her reason for studying it she said she cared about pollution, but evidently didn't want to measure it. However if she had a role as an Environmental Health officer say or a policy officer for a green group and could learn the practical skills and of use the technology available she might fare better.

We should support people who are both anxious and curious to learn these skills. In my previous experience as an L&D researcher, anxiety and ambition are equally powerful drivers for learning.

Anyway, Irene in the cake factory ended up with a bit of help from me and Cardonald College getting that promotion and she was delighted. Because she had to learn and she did learn. The young environmentalists dropped it and did business studies. One person strived to learn because she had to, and another just avoided the subject as much as she could.

As I develop CIPD Scotland's policy and programme on skills I have been looking at wide range of skills issues. In the future skills category I think we have a real problem in term of numeracy and the basic Science, technology and engineering (STEM) skills we need given that our economy is effectively weighted towards such skills. I will say more about that next week.

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