What maths skills do you need to become a tradie?

Builders are basically mathematicians that make stuff – yep, that’s how much adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying they do at work. Image: Shutterstock

Think that if you’re a budding tradesperson, dropping maths is no big deal? In actual fact, hands-on construction gigs use numbers a lot more than you’d think.

Trade gigs are often associated with tools, trucks and loads of physical labour, but there’s a stack of basic maths skills involved in almost every type of maintenance, repair and construction role. From calculating quantities and determining floorspace ratios to ordering materials and converting measurements, most tradespeople rely on an advanced knowledge of numbers – something that sticking with high school maths can seriously help solidify.

Here, we look at how algebra, trig and basic area skills are just as important to a successful tradie’s toolkit as a fancy drill.

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Careers that count

Electricians: Apart from all the basic stuff – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – electricians regularly use fractions, percentages and decimals when working out things like room dimensions, wiring lengths, watt to kilowatt conversions and load calculations.  Ohm’s Law (voltage = current x resistance) is a go-to equation when studying electrical circuits, and trigonometry comes in handy when figuring out the correct angle to bend a section of protective tubing.

Builders: Builders are basically mathematicians that make stuff – yep, that’s how much adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying happens in an average day. “How much steel is needed for this office build? Will the new timber flooring bear the weight of all that furniture? Is that enough water to fill up the swimming pool?” An internal monologue of measurements soundtrack an average day on site.

Tilers: Maths meets art and construction in a process that is literally all about being accurate, correct and symmetrical. Like a hypothetical problem out of a geometry textbook, a tiler regularly faces the challenge of calculating how many 2D objects (tiles) will fit into a particular space (a floor).

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Visualisation, spatial reasoning and geometric modelling along with an advanced understanding of the units, systems and processes of measurement are pretty standard prerequisites.

Concreters: Figuring out how much mixture is needed for a pour may seem like simple multiplication, but for a concreter there are some seriously complex area and volume formulas that go into each and every job.Sure, length x width x thickness = volume, but when things aren’t rectangular – which they very rarely are – the gig calls for some pretty advanced geometry.

Maths chat with a plumber…

We DM’d Instagram famous plumber John Kosta – AKA @life_of_a_maintenance_plumber – and asked him a bunch of questions.

John has 36,000+ followers on Instagram.

CwS: “Was plumbing something you always wanted to do?”

John: “No! After finishing high school, I actually enrolled in an Advanced Diploma of Business Marketing, but realised that working in an office wasn’t for me. Luckily, my brother was a plumber and I thought I’d try it out as it was more hands-on.”

CwS: “What’s an average day like?”

John: “So different! I can be doing anything from fixing people’s taps to unblocking drains and installing gas heaters.”

CwS: “Did you enjoy maths in high school?”

John: “TBH I actually wasn’t a big fan of it because I didn’t think it was going to help me when I left school. I soon learnt though that [in plumbing] we use it daily!”

CwS: “Are there any maths lessons you wish you paid more attention to?”

John: “If I could go back in time I would have listened more in measurement and geometry classes.”

CwS: “What kind of maths do you use on-the-job?”

John: “Everything! From working out volumes of material and calculating flow rates of gas appliances to size pipe work and basic accounting and invoicing. Some of the topics that I use and apply are a mix of all four operations (addition, subtraction, division and multiplication), algebra (definitely didn’t think I would be using that) and geometry.”

CwS: “You’re insta-famous! How did you get so many followers?”

John: “I started my account when I saw an opportunity to show people what plumbers like me get up to each day. At the time, no-one else was doing it on Instagram and I’d share video snippets of various jobs, no matter how small. My followers just grew over time and people really enjoyed the videos I posted, especially the gory ones – unblocking toilets and, pulling hairs out of drains!”

John’s study and career pathway

  • Advanced Diploma in Marketing, TAFE
  • Certificate III in plumbing (including a four-year apprenticeship)
  • Certificate IV in plumbing
  • Licensed plumber

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Maths 2020.

Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital editor, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.

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