Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1977

The Skills Exchange of Toronto is founded

The Skills Exchange was an alternative adult education cooperative established in Toronto in 1977 and in operation until 1986. It offered a wide range of short courses in locations all over the city, taught by professionals in their own studios, offices or homes. A typical course would run two hours, one evening per week, for four weeks, at a cost of $25-50 per person. Subjects included buying your first home, photo darkroom techniques, dating etiquette, computer programming, and vegetarian cooking, to name but a few.

The organization published a monthly course catalog, offering an average of 120 courses per month. The catalogues were free and available at stores, libraries, community centres, restaurants and bars. For the first issue, 50,000 copies were printed.

The Skills Exchange was started as a non-profit organization. Admission fees were shared equally between instructors and the administration office. It operated out of a house on Brunswick Avenue, north of Bloor Street. The founders were Jeffrey Hollender, son of a New York advertising executive, Roger Hollander, a Toronto social activist, Buzz Burza, an American Peace Corps veteran who had settled in Toronto and worked at the Toronto Clarion newspaper, and Patricia Oliver-Martin, who had come to Toronto from France. I was the original catalogue designer and print production person. The catalogues were printed by Weller Publishing, on Bloor Street between Brunswick and Howland. Weller’s main business was producing Magyar Orszag, a Hungarian newspaper, but they also rented out time on their typesetting equipment and web press. They had been the printer for the Toronto Clarion. Wire in-store display racks for the catalogues came from Harry Hipkin’s wire-bending shop on pre-Chinatown Broadview, The Florist’s Wire Works. Hipkin’s design incorporated a small display ring at the top of the rack like the menu holder on a restaurant salt-and-pepper set.  The ring seemed to serve no purpose for the newspaper racks, but six years later it proved to be one of the essential ingredients in the successful launch of NOW magazine because it allowed them display their pictorial full-page covers and to pack twice the amount of papers into each rack. But that is another story.

In 1978, Jeffrey Hollender went back to New York, Roger Hollander went on to other ventures (first as director of the 519 Church Street Community Center and then as an NDP councillor for the Metro Toronto government), Buzz Burza went to join Hollender in New York to launch a similar venture there, The New York Network for Learning, and Patricia Oliver-Martin went on to other ventures as well.

The Skills Exchange organization was taken over by Norman Ringel. Tom Warney took over Hollander’s job, and Avi Rodak took over Burza’s. Ringel transformed the cooperative into a for-profit corporation and continued to run it until 1986. During that period, teachers were paid a flat fee per course. The organization experienced a number of management problems between 1984 and 1986. Enrollment was still strong, but it was losing money because of some bad investments. At that point it was sold to the Toronto School of Business, who closed it eighteen months later. They were unable to adapt their existing business model to the short-course format and to compete with The Learning Annex, an American chain who had opened a Toronto branch in the mid 1980s.

I produced the catalogues from the launch until 1979, when I took a six-month hiatus. Design was taken over by Joel Rotstein & Associates on Merton Street. Upon my return in 1980, I started a typesetting business and took on that component of catalogue production until 1984, at which point Joel Rotstein began desktop publishing the material at his own office.

The Skills Exchange had a profound impact on adult education in Canada. Over their nine years in operation, they hosted more than 100,000 students! That is certainly a very respectable legacy. In addition, they were the paradigm pioneers who created a market for The Learning Annex (who are still in operation and were sold to the CHUM organization in 2002) and for many other companies who began offering specialized adult education and professional development courses modeled on the format started by The Skills Exchange. This decentralized, egalitarian approach stood in stark contrast to the formalized, credentialist stance of the educational establishment. It was a natural outgrowth of the “deschooling society” movement that was sweeping North America at that time.

The Skills Exchange also launched the careers of many Toronto notables who first gained prominence as instructors. One who springs to mind is Dufflet, who got her start teaching a cookie-making course in 1978 and is now the undisputed queen of gourmet pastries in Toronto (if not Canada).

The Skills Exchange touched Toronto in wider ways too. One of the significant factors in the initial success of NOW magazine was their ability to capitalize on the distribution network and goodwill already developed by Buzz Burza and his team (not to mention Hipkin’s ring). Buzz came back to Toronto to become one of the original five founders of that publication, after having worked in for the New York Network for Learning for three years. It was The Skills Exchange that was first to offer the Toronto public free publications other than advertising flyers for stores. NOW magazine was able to ride on their coattails with its free distribution business model and to thus get off to a flying start. Without the Skills Exchange, NOW may never have lasted.

Many of The Skills Exchange’s instructors were also the same cultural avant garde who were driving the vibrant Queen Street West scene of the 1980s, so that too benefited from its energy.

All in all, I am proud to say I was a part of it.

Prepared by John Negru (OISE/University of Toronto)

2002

Citation: Negru, John (2002). 1977: The Skills Exchange of Toronto is founded. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/1977skills_exchange2.html  (date accessed).

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Last updated on December 16, 2002.