Report Overview


Professor Jeremy Hodgen and Dr Rachel Marks review the literature on maths in the workplace for the Sutton Trust.

Key Findings

1. This report reviews over 50 research studies to consider the level and type of mathematical skills needed by employers in today’s economy. It considers five key questions:

  • What mathematics (level and content) is required in the workplace today?
  • How and why have the mathematical needs of the workplace changed over time?
  • In what ways is mathematics used in today’s workplace?
  • To what extent do specific workplaces have specific mathematical demands?
  • What are the implications of mathematics use in the workplace for post-16 education?

2. This report looks in detail at the application of mathematics by those without numerate degrees in six key sectors: Health (predominantly nursing); Engineering; Construction and Manufacturing; Transportation; Retail; Finance.

3. Mathematics participation levels in England are recognised internationally to be low. While over half of young people gain at least a C grade at GCSE maths, only 20% continue to study any maths post-16, whereas across the OECD, the majority of young people in all other developed countries outside the UK continue to study maths until age 18.2

4. The level of mathematics used by people in the workplace and required by employers for all but the most highly numerate and technical jobs is “simple mathematics in complex settings”. The academic level of the mathematics required lies almost wholly within the GCSE curriculum.

5. However, although the mathematical content may be at GCSE level, it is embedded within complex settings and the transfer of mathematical skill to the workplace is not always straightforward. Many workplace settings require the sophisticated use of these basic mathematical skills, particularly when people in the workplace are faced with modelling scenarios. Increasingly, and particularly in combination with the use of technology such as Computer Aided Design and modelling software, employees work in collaboration to reach joint understandings.

6. All the evidence suggests that workplaces are now technology-rich environments. Many people in the workplace are engaged in ICT, particularly in using spreadsheets and graphical outputs. However, this study finds many examples of people in the workplace using a ‘black-box’ approach to some mathematical techniques, where they lack the mathematical knowledge to understand fully the techniques they are using, to control the technology, and to understand and use the outputs.


1. It is vital that all students have a solid understanding of basic mathematics. For those not taking A-level mathematics, a new pathway should be developed for students covering fluency, modelling and statistics for those who already have at least a Grade C in GCSE maths, based on the mathematical needs for employment rather than on covering more advanced topics.

2. Changes in workplace practices – particularly an increased focus on efficiency measures – have resulted in mathematical application and understanding becoming an essential skill for all people in the workplace, even in relatively unskilled jobs. People in the workplace need to be able to make sense of the mathematics they are using if they are to avoid making mistakes in the workplace.

3. All young people should continue to study maths until the age of 18. The Government has introduced this expectation only for young people who don’t gain a GCSE Grade C at 16. Continued study of maths should focus on its application, so that it is relevant to university courses and a growing number of modern jobs.

4. It is critical that alternatives to the traditional GCSE mathematics pathway are developed that are rigorous, engaging for students, provide sufficient breadth and are valued by employers. Mathematics is a critical skill for all, including to those who have not achieved a Grade C at GCSE by age 16.1

5. In general, students with at least a grade C at GCSE have already covered the critical mathematical techniques and concepts, but they do need to understand what they already know better. Any specialist mathematical techniques can be learnt in the workplace, provided students understand and can apply GCSE mathematics. The curriculum should also include more “simple maths in complex settings”, by providing students with problem-solving opportunities involving “messy” contexts that do not have straightforward solutions. Students should have many more opportunities to collaborate and discuss, working together to understand, interpret and communicate the mathematics they are involved in.

6. To allow students to more easily transfer their mathematical skills into the workplace they should use computers extensively, particularly spreadsheets and computer-generated graphs, to apply and learn mathematics. Competence in these skills matters in the workplace.