Public libraries are widely known for helping people apply for jobs, especially in the wake of the Great Recession of the late 2000s. But Andrea Levandowski, program manager for small business development and technology at the New Jersey State Library in Trenton, said that’s only part of the employment equation.
“The skills for filling out a résumé and application become obsolete once someone gets a job,” said Levandowski, paraphrasing a quote she had read from Elisabeth Sanders-Park, author and president of WorkNet Solutions, a career consulting firm. “Helping a job seeker isn’t the end,” she said. “Workforce development can get people on a career path rather than just a job.”
Levandowski was one of four presenters representing state libraries at “Libraries Strengthening the Talent Pipeline,” a March 23 session at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia aimed at getting public libraries thinking about how they can better integrate themselves into the existing workforce framework at the local, state, and national levels.
“The public library really is the on-ramp to workforce development,” said Tammy Westergard, assistant administrator at the Nevada State Library, Archives, and Public Records in Carson City. “We know that libraries are trusted places,” she said. “Putting libraries at the center of the solution certainly reinforces LSTA [Library Services and Technology Act] priorities.”
Panelists suggested that public libraries look to the workforce councils and development agencies in their states, as well as community-based organizations and higher education and vocational institutions, to see where their services and expertise might fit. Taking inventory of the workforce structure and learning about local needs can help librarians identify opportunities for partnership and resource sharing—especially in rural areas or places where it may be hard for government services to reach people.
“One easy, low-hanging fruit for partnerships is realizing we share a lot of the same service populations [with workforce agencies],” said Elizabeth Iaukea, digital inclusion librarian at Washington State Library in Olympia. She noted that this includes underserved groups such as the homeless, ex-offenders, Native Americans, veterans, and English-language learners. “The workforce system is learning what resources the library has and is starting to direct clients there,” she said, because they “don’t have the capacity.”
Libraries should also look to trends—such as the evolving and problematic gig economy—or models around maintaining licenses or certifications to see where they may offer their assistance as information professionals. They should also remember to take a holistic approach.
“Workforce development doesn’t start when you’re a grownup,” said Lisa Shaw, rural and small libraries specialist at the Maine State Library in Bangor. Early literacy, empathy, problem-solving, and “soft skills” are integral to today’s job market. “Robots aren’t going to be taking over [those skills] right away,” she said, pointing to the realistic threat of automation.
“My advice is to start by listening,” said Levandowski, who is a fan of attending meetings and developing face-to-face relationships. She also encouraged attendees to join her online LibsWork group for monthly conversations; email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Subscribe LibsWork” in the subject line. “Don’t try to guess what the workforce development needs are.”