Bringing in young people to work in the shipyard industry is not an easy thing to do. There are other ways of making a living that aren’t as dirty, noisy, smelly and physically demanding as working in a boatyard, young recruits say. But those who take a shot at it may have built in roadblocks to success, including the inability to pass a drug test or a lack of understanding of simple mathematics, particularly working with fractions.

Author Kate Nonesuch of Malaspina University-College in Duncan, British Columbia, specializes in teaching basic math to young adults. She penned “Changing the way we Teach Math, A Manual for Teaching Basic Math to Adults.” 

I asked her in an email if it was more difficult for an 18-20-year old to grasp basic math than an eight-to-10-year old.

“I would say no, other things such as basic intelligence and motivation being equal. However, 18-to-20-year olds who have been to school for 12 years or so, taking math all those years, and who come out still not knowing basic math, will have various resistances to learning it at this stage: feeling that math is boring, doesn't make sense, has no application in real life, and thinking that they are stupid about math and can't learn it,” said Nonesuch. “So the teacher has to deal with all those emotions and attitudes first. It makes no sense at this point to start again to teach them the same way that they have been taught in the past, because clearly that method didn't work.”

Then I asked how difficult would it be for shipyard officials to teach basic math skills to potential employees and how long would it take? “Using manipulatives and the techniques I outline at the end of ‘Changing the way we Teach Math’ I can teach this kind of student how to understand fractions, i.e., which is larger, smaller, more than half, less than half, changing from one denominator to another, etc., and to do basic operations with fractions in about 30 hours of teaching time,” she said. “Decimals and [percentages] another 20 hours. However, I cannot do this without working on emotions and attitudes along with the math.”

Nonesuch added that the best way for these students to learn is on the job, or at least in preparation for a specific job, so the math makes sense, has a purpose, and uses tools, materials and problems that pertain to that job. “There is a series of small books by Delmar Publishers, with math and math problems based on the needs of individual trades. The series is called ‘Practical Problems in Math’ with a different book for each trade,” she said.

Of course, sometimes a student is motivated to learn whatever it takes to get a good paying job such as those in a shipyard. Phil Callahan, president and CEO, SPARX Welding & Technology Institute, Houma, La., said he sees it a lot in students “whose wives or girlfriends become pregnant.”

Well, yeah, there is that.


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.