Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Your Kid(s) Should Study Math

The unemployment rate among recent college graduates is about twice the 9% rate for the labor force as a whole. Many a recent recipient of a very expensive sheepskin has returned to the nest, bearing truckloads of debt and earning no regular income to repay it. Much has been written about their disillusionment; perhaps not enough has been written about those of their generation who found good jobs. Where are the high-paying jobs for holders of 4-year degrees? In engineering, computer programming and other science-oriented fields. What do these fields have in common? The need for good math skills.

Engineers can command starting salaries of $70,000 or more a year. People taking jobs in, say social work, earn half that or less. But they may have comparable debt loads. These statistics tell you who's going to be better off five, ten, twenty and more years after college.

Many liberal arts grads try to bail themselves out by taking on more student loans and going to law school or business school. Those with a facility for numbers will have the advantage. Most areas of law practice involve numbers. That's obviously so for those specializing in business, tax, trusts and estates, or torts. But math skills pay off even in areas like family law (try doing a prenup or a divorce without an understanding of money and finance), or criminal law (DNA matching is statistical, not literal, and sentencing issues can sometimes devolve into numerical arguments). As for finance and other business school subjects, take a look at options pricing models, and then bounce over to the math underlying a CDO, and then a CDO squared. If that's not enough fun, look at the modelling underlying high speed stock trading algorithms. Those who struggled with middle school algebra won't have a chance.

Even if you're not a college grad, math skills can be very important. Skilled blue collar work is increasingly computerized (look in the service bays of any car dealership, or the work stations in a machine tool shop). The manager of any franchise or retail business needs to keep track of sales, inventory, and employee schedules and hours worked. Even with computers, you can't do the work right unless you have a grasp of numbers.

All the nations that seem economically strong today emphasize math in their educational systems--China, South Korea, Singapore, and Germany are examples. America's state and locally controlled school systems don't place the same priority on math. That leaves only you as a parent. Too many students and parents focus on what it takes to get into the best college possible--being well-rounded, and having public service, internships, foreign travel and impressive references. Not enough focus on the step that follows: getting a freaking job.

Advanced economies become advanced through the application of science and math. Without science and math, we'd still be living in caves. People who understand the basis for advancement will do better as the future unfolds. Make sure your kids take as much math as they can stand. Not everyone needs to take calculus in high school, but the more mathematical facility a person has, the better that person is likely to do.

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