Want a fulfilling job in the future? Make sure you brush up on your maths

As Europe emerges from the grip of a heatwave – its worst on record – the reality of climate change is getting uncomfortably close. This is a uniquely human challenge, but solving it will require some deft mathematics.

Climate change poses a severe economic challenge to our future. Aside from direct losses due to floods, earthquakes and droughts, there are potentially substantial losses involved in financing the green revolution. Not only does capital need to be allocated for new technologies to reduce emissions, but there may be losses arising from existing capital investment in infrastructure and assets that are no longer needed. All of which will involve a massive re-allocation of financial flows. One of the big questions besetting the world economy now is how fast can this be done in such a way that it does not cause financial instability?

This was also one of the questions that a postgraduate student team wrestled with at the 6th Financial Mathematics Team Challenge (FMTC) hosted by the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at UCT this July. This annual event assembles teams of talented students from global universities to solve pressing real-world problems – and the scope of the challenges they engage with are indicative of the all-pervasiveness of mathematics in the world today.

Mathematics is an essential component in understanding the science of climate change and most other areas of commerce and industry. Professor Matheus Grasselli, Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at McMaster University in Canada, says that his team of FMTC students examined and analysed the many variables of climate change, and the complex interactions between them and the economy. Any plausible model resulting from their efforts may provide a mechanism to manage the effect. “This is essential for proposing policy changes or providing scenario planning for industry.”

You might think that this work is highly specialised and has nothing to do with securing a “regular job” or choosing a career in a creative field. However, the days of only needing a good mathematics degree for a career in the financial sector are gone, says Professor Andrea Macrina, Director of the Financial Mathematics programme at University College London and Adjunct Professor at AIFMRM.

Today’s world is dependent on technology – and the mathematical skill that underpins it, he asserts. “This is completely pervasive. For example, social media is a gigantic mathematical machine, and any business needs people who understand how it works. In the UK, large online retailers are hiring or consulting mathematicians and statisticians – not marketing specialists or graphic designers – to understand their target market better and how to reach them.”

It is almost impossible to find a profession or business that does not already rely on algorithms in some form. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman brought to light that algorithms are often preferable to human judgement in such diverse fields as law and medicine, observing that “there are very few examples of people outperforming algorithms in making predictive judgments. So, when there is the possibility of using an algorithm, people should use it.” The 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs report provides evidence that jobs for doctors and lawyers are declining due to technological advances that are replacing their skills. The report went on to identify the essential skills needed for 2020, which included analytical thinking and innovation; technology design and programming; complex problem solving, and systems analysis and evaluation. These are for all intents and purposes mathematical skills.

Meantime, data science/analytics is the fastest-growing field in the United States, and according to LinkedIn, the profession has grown 6.5 times since 2012. As data science is based in statistics and computer science, proficiency in mathematics is, again, a prerequisite.

Maths is problem-solving. It is logic. It is analysis. It underpins analytical thinking. You simply cannot do these things without mathematics.

Globally, mathematics education is benefiting from high levels of investment to meet future needs. In 2015, Japan took steps to close social science and humanities faculties at 26 of its 86 national universities in favour of subjects that would better prepare its workforce for the future. Professor Grasselli notes that, at McMaster University in Canada, Mathematics is the largest department in the Science Faculty, and student numbers have increased by a multiple of five over the last six years. “Prospective students are aware of the need to have the mathematical skill to be able to work in any industry, and they are designing their education around that.”

In South Africa, the picture is less positive. It is deeply problematic that South Africa is not producing sufficient school leavers who are competent in mathematics. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Competitiveness Report ranked South Africa last out of 140 countries for mathematics and science.

This needs to be remedied. Urgently. Proficiency in mathematics is crucial for South Africa’s economic growth and development – as an emerging economy, we cannot afford not to invest in mathematics education. We need skilled people who can inform policy and shape industry. On an individual level, maths proficiency will become increasingly indispensable for job security.

Quite simply, the future world of work will be divided into jobs that are fulfilling, worth doing, and lucrative – and those that are not. Mathematics may prove to be the dividing line.

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