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06 November 2008
To get by in a recession you need transferable skills
If you are worrying about recession then you might be thinking about how you can get through it without too many bumps on the way. Having a skill certainly helps, but having the right kind of skill is even more important.

Let's consider my parents, both of whom were young adults during the 1930s as a case in point. Both came through that recession, but they came through it in different ways. My father struggled through the decade whilst my mother sailed through it with hardly a hit. I think that their stories are worth telling...

My father was apprenticed as a pattern card maker and came out of his time just as the Great Depression hit in 1932. Pattern card makers were responsible for creating the punch cards that controlled the machinery that weaved textile patterns. Today it is all done by a computer programme but back then the work was controlled by cards that were created by the hand of a skilled man.

The problem was that when the textile mills went on short time men like my father found themselves out of work along with everyone else. They also learned to their cost that a pattern card maker's skills were so highly specialised as to be useless when the mills closed. My dad went and took a job as a pub waiter for room and board and got through the rest of the Great Depression that way.

My mother was a dressmaker as were all the women in her family. She regarded the paper patterns used to cut out cloth as being for amateurs, as real dressmakers only ever cut by eye. When the recession arrived she found that her skills were in high demand. She worked in a shirt maker's throughout the period, as well as providing people in her locality with all the shirts, dresses and trousers that they needed. All they had to do was provide her with the material, let her measure them up and then return to collect the finished items on the agreed date. And pay her - that last bit was very important.

She and her mother were already heavily involved in the alterations game, and that boomed during the 1930s. She once told me that one of the most common jobs was to take a pair of worn-out men's trousers and then shorten them, take in the waist, repair any holes and give them back to the customer so that her son could wear them.

If you think about this, my mother not only had a set of transferable skills, but she had skills that she did not need to sell to an employer. She did have a full time job, but she made almost as much money by working from home. Remember that people were far less indolent in those days than they are today and most women could make simple alterations to clothes. My mother could just work magic with cloth, so people flocked to her house because she could do what they couldn't.

My father by way of contrast had to work for an employer. His skills were only of use when applied with high levels of capital in a mill. Given that those mills never fully recovered, he ended up after the war working as a labourer in a Manchester engineering factory.

Now it's not up to me to tell you what to go off and do. The only advice that I can give is that you might consider finding something that is always in demand and which you can do from home with little or no capital outlay. It also needs to be something that people will always have to buy, even when times are bad.

If you can find such a niche, as my mother once did, then you might just sail through the recession unscathed. If you can't, then you are in my dad's position and will find yourself shit out of luck.

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