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What Skills Shortage? Sustainability For All…?

May 17, 2010

The much-debated ‘skills shortage’ in regeneration was never a clear-cut issue; plenty of volunteers (and some third sector workers) have skills which are consistently underused. And the current economic climate has left even experienced professionally qualified practitioners without a job.

Nonetheless, the skills and knowledge sets for the green economy will surely be different from those required hitherto.

Perhaps this emerging green economy agenda offers informal commonalities of interest between volunteers and under-used professionals which could produce work for both in the future.Finding myself generally at both ends of the regeneration spectrum, but rarely in the middle, it took me a long time to understand what the ‘skills shortage’ was supposed to be about.

I have seen on many occasions that there are bright and well-versed people who can contribute to community engagement and development, but for whom no paid (and certainly no secure) work is forthcoming; and I have observed too that there are informed and able people who understand strategic thinking and contribute constructively to this agenda at every level from the local to the national.

Physical construction

So where’s the skills gap? Why the worry? In the perverse way of these things, the credit crunch was what persuaded me that skills remain a major concern. As building programmes for new homes, schools, hospitals and physical infrastructure start grinding to a halt, it has become painfully clear that people who can deliver these projects are now available for work, whereas before there were few of them to spare.

The issue currently is how to conserve these skills for future use, not who can offer them in the short term. What happens next is difficult to see. We have skills sets in construction and design which, like those in community capacity building, now provide scant paid employment.

New volunteers?

But whereas it has been deemed acceptable in many instances to use the talents of volunteers for community engagement and development, this obviously can’t happen for physical construction. Buildings and bridges require accredited, accountable and insured professionals to bring them to fruition.

Which brings me also to ask where all those committed and skilled community volunteers and suddenly available physical regeneration professionals can fit in for the future.

Catalysts for community action

Firstly, has physical regeneration until recently been a catalyst for community capacity building (or whatever you want to call it) simply because it offered a focus, a reason for people to get together and take a view – albeit sometimes a negative one? Without this focus, can we expect the live wires in communities to have enough reason to get their fellow citizens together to ask what their communities actually want?

And secondly, is there any common cause which might unite both volunteers and professionals in looking for ways forward, even if often at present both of these groups needs-be must do so in their unpaid time?

Sustainability as common cause?

Perhaps in fact there is such a cause: the immediate call for action on sustainability becomes more pressing by the day. Our environment and eco-systems are at a tipping point which demands response by all of us.

Yet some, perhaps most, volunteers lack the technical understandings required, whilst others, perhaps including many technical professionals, don’t know as much about working with real people in real, day by day communities.

The challenge of climate change and all that goes with it could right now become an opportunity for everyone to learn and share together.

The promised green economy

The green economy, we are promised, is about to emerge as a major plank in national policy and delivery. Presumably that means more proper paid employment in this sector; more jobs, and new skills and knowledge sets.

Those across the community volunteer and physical regeneration divide who choose now to collaborate as fellow citizens may find in the fairly near future that they are equipped to meet the demand for new skills in the emerging green economy.

New skills and long shots

It’s a long shot, there’s currently no-one seriously trying to get this together, and the big risk is still that the skills and knowledge of regeneration professionals and volunteers alike will simply dissipate beyond recall, as the recession continues and everyone focuses even more grimly on stark survival.

But perhaps it’s worth a try. If even now communities of interest can’t get together, with or without official sanction, to try to ‘save the planet’ (or more accurately the people on it), then surely skills deficits will be last thing we need to worry about.

A version of this article was first posted on 16 May 2010 on the New Start Blog.

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