Working Toward Change | Workforce Development

Melanie Colletti was on desk in the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) technology center when she recognized a woman at a computer who’d been a participant in the library’s “Free To Learn” job seekers program the previous year. “She seemed easily frustrated but very intelligent, and I was disappointed when she didn’t return for her third session,” says Colletti. She asked the woman how she was doing, and, to Colletti’s delight, the woman had used the résumé they’d worked on to get a job and had been employed ever since. “Even though it didn’t seem like we were connecting with her, I guess we were.”

Melanie Colletti was on desk in the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) technology center when she recognized a woman at a computer who’d been a participant in the library’s “Free To Learn” job seekers program the previous year. “She seemed easily frustrated but very intelligent, and I was disappointed when she didn’t return for her third session,” says Colletti. She asked the woman how she was doing, and, to Colletti’s delight, the woman had used the résumé they’d worked on to get a job and had been employed ever since. “Even though it didn’t seem like we were connecting with her, I guess we were.”

Libraries continue to be a primary resource for workforce development, but over the past ten years, the needs of workers have altered dramatically. The consequences of such rapid change for people who had expected to stay in the same field, perhaps even with the same employer, for their entire working life has had a powerful impact. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report The Future of Jobs, “on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.”

As “workforce development” becomes synonymous with “lifelong learning,” libraries take a natural lead in supporting 21st-century workplace skills, as outlined in the curriculum for Project Compass: Libraries Lead Workforce Development in the 21st Century.

O-GETTERS (Top): Go where they are—learning “on the road” in the Houston PL Mobile Express. (Inset): Hands-on learning for MT1 certification at the Carson City Library, NV. Top photo courtesy of Houston Public Library; bottom Photo by Cathleen Allison, Nevada Photo Source–C/O Carson City Library

GO-GETTERS (Top): Go where they are—learning “on the road” in the Houston PL Mobile Express. (Inset): Hands-on learning for MT1 certification at the Carson City Library, NV. Top photo courtesy of Houston Public Library; bottom photo by Cathleen Allison, Nevada Photo Source–courtesy of Carson City Library

Tech, training, transportation on target

Most libraries offer strong programs in job search basics. The Cuyahoga Works (CW) Job and Career Services Department at the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), OH, is an excellent example of a well-established workforce development center. Created in 1976, CW provides career counseling, single-topic workshops, a 15-week Job Seekers series, and programs for teens and seniors. It also has four credentialed rehabilitation counselors on staff. “Our counselors offer a personalized, customer-service approach to support our patrons,” explains Kristie Williams, CCPL career services supervisor, including personality, skill, interest, and values assessments. Good basic resources can be found at, with library-focused examples.

Assessing and responding to local needs is a crucial part of workforce support. When KentuckianaWorks—the Louisville workforce investment board (WIB)—identified a gap in workforce coding skills, it developed CodeLouisville, pairing IT professionals as mentors with learners. As a partner, the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL) provides computer time and learning platforms Treehouse and for CodeLouisville participants with LFPL cards. (For more on CodeLouisville, see Louisville Libraries Help Train Local Talent for Tech Jobs and Firing on All Cylinders.)

Elsewhere, libraries are helping users gear up for jobs in a field frequently bemoaned as a thing of the past: manufacturing. Nevada Working Capital (NWC), a partnership between the Carson City Library (CCL) and Western Nevada College (WCN), brought a manufacturing technologies training and certification process into a public library in an effort to get ready for a new Tesla automotive plant. “Participants had training options based on their time and education needs,” explains Diane Baker, NWC project manager. “The library offered 13-week fast track, six-month self-paced, and five- to six-week super–fast track” programs, while the college offered semester-based curricula. Additional classes on SolidWorks (specialized engineering software), presentation skills, and computers were also available. Grant funds paid for the certification test fees. During the one-year pilot, CCL and WCN helped 64 students ages 18 and older earn the Manufacturing Technician 1 (MT1) certification; CCL will continue to offer the self-paced program and periodic proctored exams and is pursuing options for partial fee scholarships. CCL has also shared what it’s learned about providing MT1 certification with a nearby Nevada library. (For more, see Nevada Library To Offer Manufacturing Certification.)

Sometimes, the key to successful job training isn’t the topic but the location. Houston Public Library’s (HPL) Mobile Express is a tech lab on wheels. From July 2015 through June 2016, more than 200 people received help through a three-part course on job search basics. Mobile Express visits “high schools, community centers, apartment complexes, city ­departments, churches, and nonprofits.” Explains My’Tesha Tates, community engagement manager, “It helps us because these organizations have already made connections…we can serve our customers where they eat, sleep, and play.”

Service to service members

At the Pierce County Library System (PCLS), Tacoma, staff saw a similar path to reach veterans and military dependents. After a needs assessment, PCLS created a 100 percent outreach-based service. Veterans Open Lab classes are taught by library staff at Rally Point 6 (RP/6), the veterans service center. Jamie Foster, digital literacy associate, knows that hosting the program there is critical to its success. “Most of my students haven’t walked into a library since grade school, if ever. [RP/6] is just military enough that it’s familiar and civilian enough to be comfortable.” Similarly, Foster’s ability to “speak fluent military” helps translate needs from the service member population to the library.

PCLS makes the Microsoft Imagine Academy learning platform available to all customers, but while the office specialist training is more popular at the public library, service members “love” the technical associate work. Ex-military members have used IT certifications to start small businesses, land managerial jobs at large employers, or go (back) to undergrad or graduate school. As Foster sums it up, “I feel [our] greatest strength is helping military and families realize that they have skills that are really useful in the workplace, they just need to repackage it a bit and maybe [work toward] certification.”

In 2012, the California State Library (CSL) and the California Department of Veterans’ Affairs (CalVet) piloted Veterans Resource Stations in libraries, similar to Citizenship Corners. Trained volunteers (often veterans) help convert military skills into marketable attributes and assist in obtaining waivers for academic credentials for military training. CSL chose this path because “library staff would be unable to commit the...time that the volunteer can devote to working with individual veterans,” says Jacquie Brinkley, library consultant at Infopeople, a a grant project of the Califa Group, and a leader of Veterans Connect @ the Library.

Welcome returning citizens

Another population requiring extensive support to reenter the workforce are ex-offenders (known as returning citizens), who may not have had strong academic or employment histories prior to prison. Returning citizens need opportunities to practice workplace basics: timeliness, thoroughness, and responsibility. In Maryland, as part of the Library Book Repair Project (LBRP)—a collaboration between Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL) and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF)—professionally trained inmates acquire skills and get damaged items back into circulation. According to the Urban Libraries Council’s Innovators page, “One inmate…[said] that before participating…he did not have a very strong work ethic...and learning a new skill has shown him that he can be productive in society and contribute positively instead of choosing a different direction.”

DPL’s Free To Learn program—now the Women’s Open Lab (available to all)—was originally a public outreach effort designed for female ex-offenders. In individual and group sessions, women developed résumés and job search skills, and DPL provides Resources for Ex-Offenders, including “How To Respond to the Felony Question” at an interview.

The less-formal environment encouraged attendees to “submit applications and do fun things, too.” DPL’s Colletti, now senior librarian at the Ross–University Hills Branch, explains, when she asked one participant about the best part of the program, the woman said it was when she saw her grandchildren on Facebook for the first time. “[A]t that moment it hit me how isolated many of them are, traveling from one mandated appointment to the next with little time to themselves. The Women’s Open Lab…became a place [for them to] make decisions about what they wanted to do for a few hours, what they wanted to learn. And we became a safe, approved place...for them to connect with each other or reconnect with people from their pasts.”

Counteracting the male-dominated public computer area, the Women’s Open Lab is a safe space for women who may have experienced abuse or suffered significant trauma. Staff verify attendance for ex-offenders at all tech workshops, satisfying requirements of halfway houses and parole. Ex-offenders can show a Department of Corrections ID and get a limited-use library card without proof of current address. Being treated with respect helps returning citizens reintegrate with their lives outside of correctional facilities and restores confidence in their abilities, which can be crucial to a successful job hunt.

Stronger together

No matter how well supported the library is, there is only so much that a single institution can do. In 2016, the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) and Philadelphia Works received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) implementation grant to extend an earlier collective impact project: the Paschalville Partnership revolves around the Paschalville Neighborhood Library and coordinates efforts by multiple agencies to support job seekers facing significant barriers.

Annette Mattei, a consultant and the partnership’s program coordinator, says many parts of Pennsylvania are still affected by the decline in manufacturing, and employees of that industry require extensive reskilling for new careers. “Job seekers…have often been out of work for years, if not decades.... They are referred to our partner PA CareerLink, which provides deeper skills training,” she says. Philadelphia Works’ chief research officer Meg Shope Koppel adds, “We’re working with the auto mall (just outside the airport) for this project, where there are technical opportunities available with proficiency certifications from the Community College of Philadelphia, or in sales and desk services.”

Community partners understand that working with libraries helps their missions, too. Notes Koppel, “Many workforce development boards are building web-based platforms, [and libraries] can provide technical support and learning opportunities on how [best to use them].” In California, Veterans Connect and the Los Angeles Public Library in August launched the VetNow! pilot, a chat-based job coaching tool developed by Brainfuse.

Grant providers are also more likely to fund projects with a large support base, Philadelphia Works discovered. “[We] wrote a grant and received funding…leveraging [the library’s] existing boot camps. Cooperative grant opportunities that align with the mission of the project can enhance efforts and provide momentum,” says Koppel.

In Rhode Island, the Providence Public Library (PPL), Cranston Public Library, and several other state organizations used an existing network to receive two IMLS grants. A 2014 grant funded Rhode Island ALLAccess, a computer training and workforce development program offered through Learning Lounges in libraries: dedicated drop-in computer spaces staffed by an adult educator and volunteers. Karisa Tashjian, PPL director of education, notes that the lounges are also ideal “for inviting community partners to provide their services to new audiences.... This has led to a fantastic partnership with the House of Hope and RI Coalition for the Homeless.” In 2016, PPL bootstrapped on the success of ALLAccess to secure funding for a teen-oriented workforce program, also based on the collective impact model.

As part of the 2010 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), WIBs were strongly encouraged to partner with libraries to improve services. For resources on approaching WIBs for partnership, see IMLS’s Public Libraries and the Workforce, or read a recent Training and Employment Notice (TEN) from the Department of ­Labor.

Sharing the story

The best marketing tool for workforce programming is word of mouth. In Denver, women who attend Open Lab sessions tell other ex-offenders, and library staff visit prisons to share information about the library’s services with inmates about to be released. In Pierce County, Foster relies on direct contact with community organizations. “Although time-consuming, face-to-face has really been a major numbers driver.... We had some cold calling, but almost always we were met with ‘Of course you can come’ ” to veteran-focused job fairs or events.

Once the community is using workforce development services, it’s challenging for libraries to track participation while protecting customer privacy. Job and career information is even more sensitive than borrower records and requires special care, especially for vulnerable populations. That said, tracking outcomes is vital to future success. Says PPL’s Tashjian, “One of the main challenges is [that] workforce systems require showing impact, but libraries are traditionally not designed for this.” Attendance at a program doesn’t equal success afterward. “Anecdotally we have stories of patrons coming back to [tell us] how it helped them get a job,” but that ‘anecdata’ isn’t enough for funders. “It is essential that public libraries make the case and develop the relationships to demonstrate the impact we’re having.” At Cuyahoga Works, Williams uses Titanium Scheduling (a counseling center records system) to collect personal and evaluative statistics from career counseling clients and workshop participants.

Looking forward

Libraries have many options to serve the diverse needs of today’s workforce. In addition to skills training and ­CareerOneStop–style services, libraries can help bridge the financial part of the digital divide through access to technology or by offering fee-based services for free. Library subscriptions to Treehouse or benefit all users; Pierce County Library and Nevada Working Capital used grant support to pay participants’ certification fees. Gale Cengage’s Career Online High School is another program in which libraries pay participants’ fees; it helps adult high school dropouts get their degree with a variety of career-focused majors. (For more, see Gale’s Career Online High School Offers a Fresh Start (and Cheerleaders).)

Other possibilities include providing “soft skills” training on persuasion and negotiation, business language, conflict management, or dressing for success. Libraries can coordinate meet-ups for online learners taking classes in similar subjects, or offer space for professional mixers: the Ocotillo Workforce & Literacy Center at the Phoenix Public Library hosts “Recruitment Thursdays,” a lunchtime drop-in program for large companies and small businesses to network with potential employees in a less-formal environment.

If the new normal for workforce development is lifelong learning, then libraries are the perfect place for job seekers and career changers to begin.



At the Paschalville Neighborhood Library in Philadelphia, job seekers can not only get computer help and a résumé review, they can take home a fashion update from the Tiebrary! Inspired by a visit to the Queens Library, NY, Nate Eddy, FLP’s strategy coordinator, encouraged Paschalville staff to re-create that collection. It was library assistant Omelio Alexander who thought to display and circulate ties in unused clear VHS cases, backed by the same red-and-white tissue paper one might see in a department store. Ties can be checked out for three weeks and used for interviews and the beginning of a job. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Works

Jennifer Koerber is an independent trainer and speaker on emerging technologies and the social web and coauthor (with Michael Sauers) of Emerging Technologies: A Primer for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Visit for a list of her presentations and publications

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