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The great unskilling

The cost of learning

In a society where people tend to be defined by what work they do, the question: “So what do you do?” is one that I find difficult to answer. I’m a classic Jack of all trades, master at none, and naming all the skills that I’ve collected over more than four decades would require some time. I’m not saying this to brag, but more to illustrate that I’m simply one of those people who collects skills as someone else might collect stamps or coins.

Craft worker using a shave horseI love learning new stuff, whether it’s “Botany for Gardeners” or “Making a shavehorse”. It’s a treat, a bit of “me time”, so imagine my disappointment when I got a phone call that the “Weaving willow plant supports” workshop I was booked onto wasn’t going to run for lack of participants. Lately this has been happening a lot, craft workers who used to regularly teach, no longer bother to organise the courses, as they mostly fail to attract enough interest. 

I find people often quote the price of a course as a reason for not joining, but from my own experience as a craft teacher, I know that it’s not cheap to run a course either. Firstly, there’s the time and money the teacher has spent on getting their qualifications. By that I don’t mean the years spent at mastering their craft, but just the fact that for the last decade or so, it has become almost essential for anybody wishing to teach their skills to others, to have an academic teaching qualification. Then there’s insurance, in case one of your students injures themselves or somebody else. And venue rents have risen a lot recently, you won’t easily find anywhere decent for less than £10 per hour around here. Finally, in the case of most crafts and practical courses, there’s the cost of materials.

Basket weaving course, participants with finished basketsSo before you even start to teach, there are a lot of overheads, all adding to the cost of the course. And in times of austerity, when household budgets are being squeezed, unfortunately, “leisure learning” is one of the first little luxuries that are scrapped. This is an understandable response, yet in the long term, an unwise one. Developing your portfolio of skills is a true investment that will never devalue, will never let you down and no crisis, economic or other, can ever take them away from you. Unlike your house, job or cash isa, your skills are yours for life and can save you money and in some instances, even earn you a living.

Turning skills into income

Setting up in business and becoming self employed is not something to be undertaken lightly. Yet when you lose your job and join the daily increasing ranks of thousands of unemployed people, it might well be the only option to get you off the dole. Starting up new ventures is never easy, let alone in an economic downturn where the banks simply aren’t lending. So it’s a matter of starting small, trying it out on a small scale, joining with others to share the risk and giving each other support.

Fresh and Local stallHere in Machynlleth, our Fresh and Local market stall aims to facilitate that process by giving people the opportunity to earn a bit of money with their baking, preserving, growing and crafting skills. It’s a big leap to go from doing a bit of home producing to setting up your own business and not a choice that most people would make, but producing just a little bit, on a small scale that doesn’t require a big financial investment, feels doable. It is a way to turn your skills into income which does not require a big financial commitment. And it has some additional benefits: you become part of a small supportive community, you might get inspiration from seeing what others make and doing it together is easier and much better fun. You never know where it might lead; we could have never grown our market garden (pardon the pun) into a major part of our livelihood, had it not been for Fresh and Local.

Learning from the master

Get growing bannerBut going back to the cancelled willow weaving course; it was part of a rather exciting programme put on by “Get-Growing”, a community market garden and organic horticulture training centre in Newtown and I’m not quite ready to give up on it. So over the coming week or so, I’m going to try and see if I can round up enough participants in my area to run it anyway. I’ll be using Facebook, Swapshop(our local version of Freecycle), posters and word of mouth. The teacher, a very experienced willow craft worker who grows all her own willow locally, has agreed to lower the price a little, hopefully that will help too.

John Owen lighting the charcoal kilnThere’s nothing like learning from a master, who can spot straight away where you are making mistakes and who will show you how you can improve your technique. An experienced teacher can guide and encourage you, let you in on the little tricks of the trade and give you a lot of background information that would otherwise be hard to come by. I was especially looking forward to finding out which types of basket willow grow well around here and to getting some tips on their cultivation. I hope we can find a way to run the course and make it financially viable for the craft teacher too, because if it becomes impossible for our skilled craft workers to make a living at their craft then we’ll lose their skills and expertise for ever. Already some crafts are close to disappearing, like the skills of hedge laying and charcoal making. The vast majority of people who still practise these crafts are in their sixties or beyond and we urgently need more youngsters to take up these trades, lest we lose the knowledge and forget how to do these things.

In these challenging times, we must increase our skill set to prepare for the uncertain years ahead and the learning of practical skills and crafts should not be seen as a luxury, but as a bomb-proof investment for our future.

 

Photo's: Using a shavehorse and the finished baskets- bodfari/Fresh and Local stall-creative commons/Get-Growing banner/My husband, John Owen lighting the charcoal kiln-Bodger

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