The Great Re-Skilling

The men and women of the United States were once builders of boats, weavers of fabric, turners of pots, crafters of furniture, keepers of bees, operators of mills, welders of steel, creators of new technologies, and in general makers of the goods used in America.  Entranced by the doctrine of efficiency of scale, bulging corporations merged, closed plants, moved production outside the U.S., and effected a loss of regional manufacturing skills.

We have skipped a generation in the continuity of these skills, but they are still in our cultural memory.  Our grandfathers and grandmothers even now relate stories of the local seamstress, butcher, mechanic, mason, distiller, logger, and how together they shaped the complexity of the community.  The processes of production were more visible, and young people aspired to fill those positions.

To build stable regional economies in the U.S. and create an example for sustainable development in other countries will require regaining dying skills, especially in production of the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and energy.  It will mean rebuilding a manufacturing infrastructure, re-establishing technical schools, and recommitting to the purchase of locally made goods.  Jane Jacobs used the phrase “import replacement” when describing this strategy—smaller batches, more jobs, less transportation, greater complexity, without more goods.  A sound goal for a new economy.

In their report “The Great Transition”, the New Economics Foundation identify re-skilling the work force as a priority for achieving a diverse and sustainable economy:

The Great Re-skilling continues the emphasis on re-localization, starting from the position that greater local production will require us to relearn many skills that have been forgotten. From agriculture to manufacturing to the provision of local finance, returning to appropriate scale means equipping ourselves with the means to do so. Becoming less passive in terms of consumption and production we will start to regain our autonomy, which will extend to culture and arts, where we see the beginning of a life-enhancing renaissance. This is not the case only for the economy and for the arts, however; local decision-making based on active participation will be most effective when people are well informed about what makes their local economy tick and what makes public services able to achieve the best outcomes. Achieving consensus requires as full an understanding of these issues as possible.

This is the fifth in a series of emails drawing on the work of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Read the full report here.