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Economists love to poke their noses into subject matters they know nothing about. But in defence of economists, there's usually an economic angle to the debate. So in the time-honoured spirit of intrusion, it's necessary to weigh in on two news items this week that have enormous implications for the labour market – and the economy – of the future.

The first is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, which showed Canada's 15-year-olds have slipped in the global rankings in math competency. Falling behind countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Switzerland, Estonia and Finland, Canadian scores have dropped 14 points in nine years. Math students in Shanghai performed at the highest level. (Although as Jeff Johnson, chair of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, correctly pointed out, there is a social equity issue as well. Canada may fall behind Shanghai, but our students still have a better chance of success regardless of socioeconomic background.)

While economics can't prescribe the way math should be taught, we can point to the dangers of a labour force with poor math and technical skills. Without math, bridges collapse. Chemicals can't be combined in useful ways. Finance doesn't happen (or happens poorly). Medicine reverts back to leeches and bandage. Energy and forestry and agriculture sectors simply don't work.

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This is something that should send shivers of fear down all of our spines. If Canadian students cannot master basic math skills early on, there is no question that we will fall behind in economic competitiveness. And it will happen quickly.

But another recent news item brings a bit of nuance to the discussion. According to a Workopolis report from Nov. 26, the future will have little need for routine occupations that can be easily mechanized. Jobs such as letter carriers, typists and switchboard operators won't even exist a decade from now. On the other hand, occupations in high demand will be in areas such as social workers and financial advisers – jobs that require technical knowledge, but also social skills, including empathy and listening. It won't be enough to ring up merchandise (cashiers' days are numbered), but the ability to help people make purchase decisions will be useful (sales associates are on the rise).

In other words, technical knowledge will be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. For Canada to remain competitive, we will need workers with personalities, too.

Herein lurks the more ominous danger of Canada's faltering math scores. There's a risk the OECD report will cause a knee-jerk reaction – educators will be lobbied by angry parents demanding "back-to-the-basics" math instruction, which would no doubt come at the expense of the liberal and creative arts. But it can't be math instead of arts. It has to be math as well as arts. Technical skills without the creative ability to apply them are useless.

Bridges fall down without math, but they also need someone to design them. Medicine and chemistry require math, but they also require insightful people who can work in teams to solve complex problems. Resource extraction demands math, but it also demands creative solutions to daunting environmental challenges.

I'm not an educator, nor do I pretend to have the answers to education reform. But surely there is a growing consensus that our K-12 education system is still largely a remnant of the Industrial Revolution. Students are handled in an assembly line fashion, with information pounded into their heads and moved on to the next grade (for more pounding). There are encouraging signs of education reform everywhere these days, but Canada's low scores in math may be a setback to the progress being made.

Technical skills such as math are critical, but so are social skills like imagination and creativity. This cannot be viewed as an either-or proposition – more math and less music is not the solution. How about rethinking the way we teach both, such as teaching math through music?

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Our students' low performance in math is a worry for economists. I'm even more worried about raising a generation of students who can effortlessly solve a complex quadratic equation but have no idea what to do with the answer.

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