Tools for the Job

The role of libraries in upskilling adults

May 3, 2021

On My Mind with Fatma Ghailan

Libraries have long been seen as safe havens for students, providing homework assistance and summer reading programs. Over the last decade, libraries have continued to embrace their role in training adults as well, offering them ways to learn digital skills that employers desperately need.

According to America’s Libraries: Powering Broadband Adoption, Access, and Use, a 2016 report from the American Library Association, about 90% of public libraries offer digital literacy training programs through which community members can engage in job preparation and gain new skills to aid in career advancement. The report also notes that those who receive formal training, as opposed to informal assistance from family or friends, are significantly more likely to use the internet to pursue economic opportunities and cultivate social ties.

Less often discussed, however, is how libraries can help overcome barriers to communication, which are a major factor in our country’s digital divide. Of the 23.3 million US adults with limited proficiency in English, only 718,000 are enrolled in English language and literacy courses through existing adult education programs, according to a 2018 Migration Policy Institute brief. This gap presents a serious hurdle for these residents, from communicating efficiently within their broader communities to finding stable, well-paying work. Working-age adults with limited English proficiency earn on average between 25% and 40% less than those with greater proficiency, a 2014 Brookings Institution report found.

Libraries have the opportunity to meet new Americans at the intersection of workforce development and language training, starting with language education that is career-specific. At Queens (N.Y.) Public Library (QPL), we offer several English-language programs targeted to both general audiences and prospective employees. Two of our Learn English for Work programs, administered through the e-learning platform Voxy EnGen, specifically focus on English for career paths in health care and technology. Both courses place the words, phrases, and grammar within a specific work context, greatly improving trainees’ chances of truly learning the language—not just memorizing key vocabulary.

In the training course for home health aides, for example, students learn about the specific responsibilities of the role, such as becoming familiar with common medical conditions and understanding directions from pharmacologists. In the technology course, students study best practices and real-life examples of providing IT support via telephone, email, live chat, and social media.

But meeting the demand for English-language learning is more than just training courses. It requires investing in strong partnerships between our libraries and the communities we serve to create a talent pipeline between immigrants and local employers.

At QPL, for example, we help connect students who have completed our English language course in health care with reputable home care agencies. On the last day of training, agencies give a brief presentation to students and provide potential applicants with the necessary documentation to move forward with home health aide training. For graduates in other sectors, we provide a dedicated case manager who can assist with job searches, online applications, and mock interviews. These full- and part-time library staffers are partially funded by grants under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, a program of the US Department of Labor.

Libraries are often the first place many immigrants will go for information or help. With the right resources, support, and partnerships, libraries can help bridge the language gap and extend economic opportunity to millions of new Americans and job seekers.


Staff members of Charlotte Mecklenburg (N.C.) Library assist seniors at a YMCA DigiLit class designed to help bridge the digital knowledge divide.Photo: Everett Blackmon

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