Transition Culture

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5 Oct 2010

Ingredients of Transition: The Great Reskilling


A key consideration in SCALING UP to a more localised economy is addressing the fact that we have lost, or never learnt, many of the skills that such a shift would require. While fostering a culture of SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP and its role in creating a STRATEGIC LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE will be essential, its realisation will require a huge reskilling, a shift in the focus of existing education and training, not just in terms of LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES, but across the board, particularly in terms of energy and construction.

(Given recent confusion, I thought we might experiment with calling these ‘Ingredients’, and see if that helps… we are collecting and discussing these ‘ingredients’ on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The challenge: 

Those of us alive today have a very strong claim to being the most useless generation to ever walk the planet. We have forgotten how to cook, sew, knit, repair stuff, grow food, build soils and live thriftily. Above all, we have lost the sense, that comes from having a wide range of skills, that we could turn our hand to anything, one of the key distinctions between resilient cultures/individuals, and non-resilient ones. Our schools and colleges teach very few of the skills a more resilient world will need, and young people no longer leave school with the ‘can do’ attitude that the coming years will demand.

Core Text

Since the 1960s, we have rapidly lost many of the skills that were, until then, common-place. Most people who grew up during the 40s and 50s learnt, almost by osmosis, how to garden, how to repair things, look after small livestock, how to make do with less. As one person I interviewed who was a teenager in the early 1960s told me, he was the generation for whom gardening became “something you did when your Dad caught you”. Several generations have passed during which the passing on of these skills has continued to decline, as a result of which we are now much less resilient, lacking core skills.

All is not lost however. While the overall trend has been away from Transition-relevant skills, far more people still retain them and share them than I would have anticipated. Research I did in Totnes showed that over 60% of those interviewed said that they were ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ at growing food, something confirmed in interviews as well, with many people learning and drawing inspiration from their neighbours. There is also a hunger in many places for relearning basic skills, whether food-related or related to crafts or other areas.

Some Transition initiatives, such as Transition Town Worthing, actually have a dedicated Reskilling Group. Many Transition initiatives focus on supporting this. For example, Transition Worcester, Transition Town Stoke Newington and Transition West Kirby have run courses on bicycle maintenance, and others, such as Transition Town Tooting have run days, in association with the Energy Saving Trust, to train people to conduct basic energy audits of homes and workplaces.

Some Transition initiatives have scaled this up, with Transition Putney running a whole series of reskilling workshops.  Transition Ann Arbour in the US ran a Reskilling Festival, offering a wide range of skills and skilled people to learn them from, and Transition Santa Cruz held a ‘Reskilling Expo’.

Other Transition initiatives work with their local schools to support reskilling work. Transition Newent worked with their local school to help them to put on a GCSE in Environmental and Land-based Science, with Transition Newent buying and installing a large polytunnel for the school. Transition would argue that that we need to scale up way beyond this kind of reskilling in order to be effective. There are some interesting signs. The number of schools with vegetable gardens has grown so sharply that it is now almost commonplace.

When we think of the scale of what needs to be done though, the retraining of the construction industry to produce passivhaus buildings using mostly local materials, the fact that a whole new generation of farmers who are familiar with agroforestry, growing for local markets and growing with less reliance on fossil fuels, is need urgently, we need to think bigger, hence the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Reskilling’.

There are some promising signs of this, with new bodies like the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, which is training a new generation of cheesemakers, bakers and other disappearing food skills, also the Centre for Contemporary Agriculture near Norwich which is seeking to train a generation of new farmers. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales has for many years run practical courses in renewables, building and food, and developed a very good reputation for their courses.

As John Holt put it, “we learn something by doing it. There is no other way”. This needs to run throughout our education system at all levels, and throughout our lives. Whatever Transition initiatives can do to enable and support this Reskilling work in their communities is vital work. Working with local colleges to run longer Reskilling evening classes, working in schools, engaging local Universities. Be bold and make it fun. At the end of the day, as someone who taught practical permaculture for many years, I can honestly say that no-one ever came back to me and said “I really wish you hadn’t taught me gardening… I was doing alright until then… ruined my life”…

The solution: 

Make reskilling one of the core aspects of your work. This could take the form of courses, events, practical projects or courses run in association with local educational institutions. It may be that you don’t need to run the courses yourself, but you could work in partnership with a local Adult Education College or somesuch, they would appreciate the suggestions for new courses as well as the increase in students. Providing good training is an area where partnerships are especially helpful.

Connections to smaller patterns: 

When contemplating how most effectively to enable the Great Reskilling where you are, a few things might come in useful. ORAL HISTORIES and the sharing of skills between generations can be really useful. Reskilling can be a great tool for ENGAGING SCHOOLS and for WORKING WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES, perhaps by suggesting the creation of new apprenticeships for young people. Well organised reskilling events can also be great for AWARENESS RAISING, drawing lots of people in who are fascinated by skills they either lost or never had in the first place. Effectively delivering meaningful reskilling work will be helped greatly by the NETWORKS AND PARTNERSHIPS you have managed to create.

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[…] One of the great things about the Transition movement is the hands-on approach.  We don’t just sit around talking – although that’s important to do, too – but we get together to learn practical skills in Re-Skilling Workshops. […]