Will those A-levels actually get you a job?

I’ve got some good news… and some bad news for those getting results this week.

The bad news is that in Nesta’s Top 30 Skills Chart, most of the subjects studied are conspicuous by their absence. This chart used millions of online job adverts (collected by big data company, Burning Glass Technologies) to see what employers want. And it’s not maths, history, languages or even science.  If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.

Indeed, the only subject employers mentioned was ‘English’, and that’s kind of cheating, because it’s also a language.  

The good news is that the problem is - at least in part - an academic one, due to the difference between ‘employer speak’ and ‘school speak’. We think a little reflection and translation might be all you need to join the dots.

Subjects vs skills, and litte bit of maths

Let’s look at the much maligned subject of maths. 

I love maths, but it gets a hard time. People say it’s pointless and are happy to say they can’t do it, in a way they wouldn’t dare with ‘reading’. Even Hollywood Hates Math(s).  The last thing I want is Nesta’s own analysis joining in.

But then I looked a bit closer.

Many of the Top 30 skills require, or benefit from, maths skills.  For example, ‘problem solving’, ‘Excel’, ‘computer skills’,’SQL’,’Accountancy’,’Budgeting’, and the list goes on.  If you look at the ‘digital tech’ column of the visualisation, the proportion is even greater.

In fact, I’d argue that good maths teaching also uses other skills - like communications skills, which you might typically associate with English studies.  Solving problems, reasoning and explaining your answers all require communication.  

Adjusting for this broader definition of maths skills, I estimate that maths supports 47% of the skills in job adverts we surveyed*.

So if you passed maths, give yourself a well deserved pat on the back.

A way forward

But before you mathematicians (and indeed English students or anyone else) get smug, I’d ask you to consider a few questions, the answers to which may be as important to your employment as the grades themselves:

  • How were you taught? Did you actually practice problem solving or another top 30 skill, or did you just drill past exam papers? Which subjects or teachers prepared you best and why?

  • Which of those Top 30 skills do you feel confident in? Or want to know more about?

  • What will you do next?  Those SQL and budgeting skills don’t teach themselves - do you have the grit and determination to follow up those results by learning SQL in your own time?

We’d love to know students or teachers thoughts on these questions. We’d like to adapt our Top 30 skills tool to be a useful reflection tool for students, so do get in touch if you’ve ideas.

At Nesta we’re fascinated by the intersection between skills, work, technology and education.

Following on our Creativity vs Robots report, we’ll be doing a larger piece of work with Pearson and Oxford University on the future of employment.  In education, we are also looking at one of these skills in depth, that of collaborative problem-solving, which we think will be increasingly important in a more digitised workplace and in solving some of society’s biggest problems.

Image courtesy of Hidrafil, 2007 (public domain)

*The attributes I defined as 'enabled or support by maths' were Communication Skills, Microsoft Excel, Detail-Orientated, Computer Skills, Problem Solving, Team Work, Business Management, Planning, SQL, Microsoft Office, JavaScript, Accountancy, Budgeting, and C++.  Obviously, you may question my maths or my inclusions here, but I suppose it depends on how you were taught maths... but more on that in another blog.


Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Senior Programme Manager

Michael was a Senior Programme Manager in the Education team in Nesta's Innovation Lab.

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