Fall-back Skills

by Suzita on January 6, 2011

A few years back, I got my haircut from a woman new to our local salon.  She looked quite young, and later told me she was a part-time college student in her late twenties who cut hair 2 days a week.  She was one of 9 children and had learned to cut hair to pay her way through college.

It’s likely this young woman’s family circumstances forced her to learn a marketable skill at an early age, but I perked up when I heard her story because I’d already been thinking about a similar strategy for my kids.

With the recent shifts in our global economy, it’s risky to exit one’s twenties with just one work skill or profession in hand.  Why not encourage our kids to enter adulthood with more than one money-making possibility available to them?  I think of this as having a profession and a fall-back skill.  A fall-back skill would be one that people are continually willing to pay for, even during a recession.

Possible fall-back skills:

1. Haircutting

2. Plumbing

3. Fence building

4. Other basic carpentry skills

5. Certain computer or internet skills

6. Sewing

My kids are still young, who knows where their interests will lead them?  It’s possible they’d select one of the above options as their main work.  To that I’d say, “Fine, but choose another area as a fall-back skill.”

These days we parents do so much thinking and maneuvering regarding after-school activities.  Should he learn to play an instrument?  Should she join the soccer team now while everyone is still new at soccer?  Or perhaps her time would be better spent participating in math club after school.  It’s easy to focus only on sports and academics for our children, but job skills are another valuable area.

I recently read Plenitude, by Juliet Schor.  It’s basically about trading our old, broken down, unhealthy economy for a new type of economy.  She presents some extremely thought-provoking ideas and the research behind these.

In Schor’s “plenitude economy” everyone should work fewer hours on the job (like it so far?) which research shows actually reduces unemployment.

Sociologists Anders Hayden and John Shandra also found that hours of work are a significant predictor of one’s ecological footprint.  Reduce work hours, reduce overall energy consumption.  Households with more time flexibility can engage in slower, less resource-intensive activities, Schor notes.

“Recovering one’s time makes ‘self-provisioning’ (making, growing, and doing things for oneself) possible, revealing a liberating truth:  The less one has to buy, the less one is required to earn.

Shor also uses the term “time wealth” in comparison to monetary wealth.  I love this concept!  She cites studies which have found that being time-affluent is positively associated with well-being, even when income is taken into consideration.

My fall-back skill plan would also give the kids the “I can do this myself” mindset that underscores self-provisioning.  My hope would be that possessing do-it-yourself skills would allow my kids to one day live the need-to-buy-less-and-therefore-earn-less lifestyle, if they chose.

Since I have elementary-aged children, I’m in the ideas phase of this venture.  Some thoughts regarding helping kids learn a fall-back skill:

1. Volunteer as a family for Habitat for Humanity. This one underscores many of our family’s values and I had been simply waiting until my youngest was old enough to safely and usefully volunteer there.  Recently, however, I discovered that you need to be 18 to volunteer at Habitat.  Thus, I am now looking for a similar organization.  Anyone know of a good one in the Boulder or Denver areas?

2.  When the kids are older, travel to the Shelter Institute as a family to participate in one of their weeklong programs. This family run organization has been teaching the skills of homebuilding, in addition to fine woodworking, for years.  And it’s located in beautiful New England!

3.  Mobilize the skills of friends and neighbors. When our neighbor, Danny, was building a chicken coop, I shooed the kids over to watch and lend a hand.  Then after the coop was in use, they learned chicken care (probably not a highly marketable fall-back skill, but good in other ways.)  I need to notice the many skills my neighbors have and set my kids up as worker’s helpers on their projects.

There are also psychological advantages to knowing you possess a fall-back skill.  Today, few people will remain at one job or profession throughout their lifetimes.  Having a fall-back skill in your back pocket would allow you to face a layoff or change of profession with much less apprehension.

Just don’t ask me what my fall-back skill is.  I think I’m still developing it.



I asked my kids to make a green New Year’s Resolution this year, one that would help the earth in some way.  I said I’d help them if they needed ideas, then stepped back and tried not to be too intrusive.

Stephen (12) came up with writing to our congressional reps about a climate change issue.

Daniel (10) said, “My resolution is to not be as difficult about going to yoga.”  We decided that this was enough of a “green” resolution because if more people did yoga, climate change would be more under control.  This was merely our guess, but it seemed plausible.

Those of you who remember my post, My Humble Warriors: Yoga with Adolescents and Tweens, will recall that Daniel is the one who always gives us a hard time about yoga.  I was quite surprised, but delighted to hear this resolution.

Annie (7) decided that each week she would write down something good to do for the earth and then she would take this note around to our neighbors and ask them to sign off on it too.  I know, she clearly doesn’t have the resolution concept down yet.  But she was so eager about this plan that I just couldn’t burst her “green balloon.”  That day she wrote, “I’m going to turn off lights to save the Earth’s electricity,” on a piece of paper and took it to 4 neighbors who also signed off on this pledge.

Todd and I made green resolutions too and shared them with the kids, but they weren’t half as colorful as the ones the kids generated.

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