by Janet Norton, Library Supervisor, Technology, Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach
It’s déjà vu. High unemployment rates leading to desperate people looking for help wherever they can find it. As libraries, we have all been here before. This time reminds me so much of the Great Recession earlier this century when each day the library opened, most computer stations were occupied by distressed jobseekers and we were there to help them. Helping with what they needed to get done — whether it was finding trusted job sites, making email accounts to even begin a job application or explaining resumes, uploads, attachments and more.
Yes, it feels so familiar, but this time it’s different. This time the needs are similar, but the library doors are closed and the public computer screens are dark. But, as libraries often do, the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach has adapted to serve the needs of our community and its unemployed. We have taken our in-house career services and transformed them virtually.
A Bit of Background
Formerly named “Career Catalyst,” the Get That Job program originally was funded through a 2010 Library Services and Technology Act grant and was recognized as an Exemplary Program by the State Library of Florida. It went on to be recognized as the 2012 City Livability Award Small City Winner: West Palm Beach. Since that time, the West Palm Beach Library Foundation has secured an annual grant from Wells Fargo to keep this program up and expanding. Services covered under the grant include a monthly six-hour Get That Job deep dive seminar where participants receive a free lunch and flash drive in addition to career advice. The expanded version also includes access to an onsite career coach by appointment, as well as specialized classes covering LinkedIn, interviewing skills and job search strategies. Grant funding also includes funding for library materials.
Get That Job program attendees back in the earlier Career Catalyst days
Our Virtual Resume Help feature is an extension of our onsite grant-funded program that offers individualized resume help and career guidance from a contracted professional career coach by appointment. Since onsite programming is on an indefinite hiatus, patrons can now fill out an online form to request job services. Those without access to the internet can phone library staff with their contact information. Staff routes the information to our career professional and she schedules a time to speak over the phone or email. With the assistance of an AmeriCorps member, we are also able to offer basic computer help or follow up sessions through this same contact method.
Most questions relate to updating or creating a resume, but other calls for help have involved creating an impactful personal statement for a college application, using LinkedIn and requesting general interview advice. Feedback provided from a follow-up Google form has shown people finding the service helpful.
Brainstorming together aloud helps a great deal, especially with an experienced professional. Even if I have not yet reached my employment goal, I feel that I am given better tools to approach my job search.
Feedback from Virtual Resume Help
Since rolling out the online service in May 2020, we have had over 40 appointments. While success stories have never been easy to nail down, we have at least one person who landed a job as a retail pharmacist out of 175 applicants after participating in the program.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
The virtual version of this program seems to be going smoothly at this point. Traditional in-house career programs will be hosted online using Zoom or posted on YouTube with content tweaked like The Art of Interviewing Amid COVID-19. Like most library programs, the challenge is ensuring the public can discover that these free resources are available to them. We continue to include this information in our promotions when possible and spread the word through social media and community contacts.
For the overall program, there have been adaptations throughout the years, and our main discovery is that people want point of service. While the library is still searching for best practices in this time of transitions, we have applied for an IMLS CARES Act grant hoping to acquire a vehicle to bring Mandel Mobile Library services to local parks and places where our community lives and plays. This will provide Wi-Fi, devices and service to underresourced areas of our city. In addition to homework help from our youth services department, an AmeriCorps digital literacy tutor will deliver basic job and literacy help while bridging jobseekers to our career coach for more intensive career guidance.
Everything old feels new again, but with the knowledge, resources and solid foundation built by libraries in previous times of high unemployment, we will continue to adapt and address the needs of our community by providing access to all. We can do this, we already have.
Janet Norton received her MLS from the University of Maryland. A child of books, she has grown up in libraries and has worked at the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach for over 17 years. From her initial position as a library page, to her current role as library supervisor, she retains her belief in the power of public libraries and the access they provide.