libraries & the national workforce

Following are a few remarks delivered this morning to kick off the finale’ of WebJunction’s Project Compass program, funded since 2010 by IMLS. There are great stories here about the impacts that libraries have on unemployed in their communities, and I thought those who could not be there might also like to hear them as well. I am so proud of the team that pulled this entire project together, and worked collaboratively with libraries across the U.S. to bring workforce development to the core of library service.

Good morning!

It’s my absolute pleasure to welcome you all to the Project Compass National Convening, where – over the next two days – we’ll celebrate and advance the work that public libraries do every day to develop our national workforce. I’d like to open our proceedings with a little trip around the county – and share with you a few stories from the project compass workshop participants we’ve met along the way.

We’ll start here on the east coast. Tom is a skilled professional in his mid-50s living in the CT/NYC job-market. He’s a husband and father of two, has bachelors and masters degrees, and impressive experience over the course of his career in technical instructional design. Tom loves his job as the Chief Information Officer for a local training company, who he’s been with for more than five years. But this is late 2010; the company has held on for as long as they can; Tom gets laid off, along with several colleagues.

Seven months later, on the advice of a friend, Tom visits his local library; he’s been steadily looking for work since his layoff, but can’t seem to get an interview. He starts to attend the library’s weekly job search seminars, joins a networking group led by a volunteer social worker, starts using the continuing education databases, learns how to research companies more thoroughly, and meets with an onsite career counselor regularly.

Over the course of several weeks, Tom begins to open up to the staff and other job-seekers in his networking group. Why isn’t he getting any interviews? Are his skills too specific? Is it age discrimination? And while his family is supportive, Tom shares that he’s also starting to feel the pressure to consider ANY job, just to bring home a paycheck. Library staff begin to understand that Tom’s self-esteem has really suffered; he’s under-valuing his own skills and expertise, and applying for jobs he’s over-qualified for. And that’s why he’s not getting the interviews!

Encouraged by the support he finds in the program, Tom starts to apply what he’s learning at the library. He reworks his resume and cover letter, joins a professional training and development association – and gets involved in a committee within the association. All this leads to further networking, and then to a new job opportunity – a contract position in an area hospital that’s implementing a new software system. But the software system isn’t just new to the hospital, it’s new to the industry. After multiple, rigorous interviews, Tom is offered a short-term contract. Now certified in the new technology, Tom’s working in a new industry that’s ripe with opportunity – and his new skills will easily transfer to other health care facilities, even if this contract ends.

Moving on to the mid-west, we find Alex, who’s 43. Right out of high school, Alex takes a job as an office assistant in a roofing company. Eventually, he works his way up to Office Manager, where he spends the next 13 years. But when the economy falters, and the company goes out of business, Alex’s income goes from $54k a year to unemployment insurance alone.

Like so many others, Alex has never prepared a resume, and doesn’t know how to begin searching for work in a new economy. Alex does have basic computer skills – he has an email account and knows how to search the Internet - but he spends his allotted internet time at the library searching a single job site – the one he’s most familiar with, to no avail.

One day, Alex asks library staff for help. Over time, they get to know each other better, and library staff show Alex new resources to improve his job search. But more than that, they listen.

Unexpectedly, and in the course of casual conversation, Alex mentions that he’s going to have to give up his car - the payments are too high, and he needs to trade down for a car that’s more affordable. The library staff have heard this sort of thing before, but Alex is more distressed than most. As it turns out, driving is his passion; Alex shares how he often just drives for hours with no destination, just because it’s something he loves to do.

This leads to a conversation about the possibility of a whole new career – what about driving for a living? But this didn’t just come out of the blue. The library’s ties with Illinois WorkNet had provided a list of careers that still had potential for new-comers, even in a difficult economy, and this was one of them. But when library staff mention this to Alex, they learn that he has already looked into the required training, but has written it off because he doesn’t have the money required to enroll. Ah, but the library staff also knows through their partnership with WorkNet that Alex might be eligible for a grant to complete the training! The phone calls begin …

The full application takes two months to complete, but Alex and the library staff work together through the whole process. Alex receives a grant for $4800 to complete his training at the College of Du Page. Several weeks later, the library receives a single text message from Alex that reads “I now bleed orange. Thank you.” Alex has accepted a full time job with Schneider National Trucking, driving one of those big orange trucks you often see along the highway. Now each of the library staff has a binder filled with unemployment support, tools and resources, and on the outside of each one is the phrase “I bleed orange” – its become a mantra for local library staff still supporting countless others.

And finally, let’s head west, where 45 year old Meg works at a well-established company she’s been in for 8 years. She’s put in a lot of overtime, and like Alex, seemed to be moving up. But then, with just one day’s notice, she too is laid off. And Meg has a mortgage she can’t expect to keep up with if she can’t find a new job soon.

In a panic, Meg goes to her local public library to look at job ads on the Internet. She learns that many of today’s openings require an online application too. She spends about half an hour working through the application for a promising position. When she’s almost done, she tries to save her work on a jump drive, but at the same time, hits a wrong key and wipes out the whole document. Frustrated, she gets up to leave.

But this is where Carol steps in; Carol’s the librarian on duty, finds out what the problem is and says, “That application form can’t be smarter than both of us!” She sits down with Meg and works through it to the end. While it’s being transmitted, Carol goes to the stacks and comes back with some books about interviewing. “I think you’re going to get that interview,” she says. “And here are some resources to help you get prepared.”

A week later, Meg comes back to the library. “You taught me something,” she tells Carol. “You showed me how not to give up. I did get that interview, and thanks to you, I also got the job.”

How many of you could relay, from your personal experience, or the experience of someone you know, a story much like these that I’ve shared with you today? (Almost all of you.)

Then you also know that these stories all illustrate that libraries are no longer about books, databases, or other content. Libraries and their staff offer the empathy, support, service, and space – where today’s job seekers find the expert networks and the community they need to be successful in their new endeavors. Whether it’s supporting people writing resumes and applying for jobs, or helping people launch their own businesses or grow new careers, libraries power economic recovery. And when the library does that for one American, and then another, and then another – we deliver and I do not say this lightly on the American promise of equal opportunity for all.

Let’s be honest: transforming individuals and communities in the midst of prolonged economic challenges has also required a transformation in some of our libraries. We’ve had to embrace an enormous shift in our collections and service models, and do so under incredible budget strain. And librarians, many of us, have been called on to move beyond the reasons that we originally came to this work, and focus on new and entirely unexpected community needs.

Over the next two days – the incredibly talented and passionately committed Project Compass team will take us through a schedule chock-full of celebration, support, and community for those of us actively engaged in this work.Change is hard! We need to celebrate what we’ve accomplished and get some support for moving forward.

Joining us are more than 220 public and state library colleagues from 45 states and the district of Columbia. Esteemed guests…

  • Susan Hildreth & Mary Chute from IMLS
  • Terri Bergman from the National Association of Workforce Boards
  • Jane Oates from the Department of Labor
  • Ron Carlee from the International City/County Management Association
  • futurist Garry Golden and author Marilyn Johnson

…will share their expertise and their encouragement for taking us even farther.

As you attend these sessions, I encourage you to reflect on your own path through the incredible transformations we are all now a part of. I can tell you that, personally, devising this project with the library community (especially Jennifer at North Carolina and Kevin at IMLS), and then following it through to implementation across the nation, has been one of the highlights of my entire career. You, the library staff and partners we’ve worked with, and the patrons you’ve served, inspire me daily with your courage, tenacity, and hope.

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