Despite funding struggles, suburban libraries helping job seekers
Unemployed for about 2½ months, Libertyville resident Michael Page is looking for a retail sales job — and he thinks improving his computer skills could boost his chances.
"I've been having a little trouble because I'm new at computers," Page, 55, admitted.
So on Tuesday, he joined a half-dozen other people in a small computer lab at Libertyville's Cook Park Library for a class called "The Basics of Online Job Searching."
The participants — all middle-aged or older adults — learned about basic Internet navigation, the best keywords to use for a job search and the importance of password security, among other subjects.
Such classes are being staged across the suburbs — and across the country. Public libraries have become the go-to resource for people on the hunt for new jobs, whether they're unemployed or simply looking for a change.
"They come here first," said Shannon Scanlan, a business services librarian at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library who has helped run a popular Job Seeker series.
But the demand for employment services is growing at the same time libraries are reporting significant funding struggles that have strained personnel and resources.
Nearly 60 percent of public libraries reported flat or decreased budgets in the 2011 fiscal year, according to a recent study by the American Library Association and the University of Maryland's Information Policy and Access Center. Sixty-five percent of libraries anticipate flat or decreased budgets this fiscal year.
Like so many employees in so many fields, librarians have to do more with less. But many are meeting the demand for jobs programs in creative ways, such as partnering with local Rotary clubs, community colleges and other organizations.
"It's a matter of priority," said Cook Memorial Public Library District Director Stephen Kershner.
Programs and services for job seekers and people struggling with unemployment have been offered at libraries in West Chicago, Arlington Heights, Wheeling, Schaumburg, Huntley and other suburbs.
Some gatherings are stand-alone efforts, while others are part of more extensive series.
The Arlington Heights library launched its Job Seeker programs during the last recession in February 2009. It was a response to high unemployment in the community and requests from patrons who were lacking modern job-seeking skills, such as formatting a resume or using social media, Scanlan said.
"We had people who were out of work for the first time since the 1980s," Scanlan said. "It was much, much needed."
Last year, the library offered 25 programs — about two a month. Topics included how to find government jobs, using the LinkedIn networking service, and using a foreign degree in the United States.
About a year ago, the library opened a business center in the nonfiction area. It offers five computer stations, a collection of computerized business and job resources, Skype and webcams for video conferencing and online classes and even a scanner that allows people to add printed resumes to digital services.
Twice a week, a professional consultant comes to the library to review resumes.
"He's got quite a following," Scanlan said. "They usually book up a month in advance."
The programs are funded with help from the local Rotary Club, which has given the library grants totaling $8,000 since 2010.
Elgin's Gail Borden Public Library has formed similar partnerships, with Elgin Community College and other groups and agencies, for its employment programs, library spokeswoman Denise Raleigh said.
The library hosts a jobs club that allows unemployed people to network and exchange ideas, programs that encourage entrepreneurship and "a ton of computer classes," among other efforts, Raleigh said.
Librarians also converted a section of the reference area to a job center that has want ads, business guides and related materials.
"We have a need for job creation in this community," Raleigh said. "It's our role to make sure that people's needs are met."
Meeting those needs can be difficult when local tax revenues are decreasing and state funding is unreliable, as has been the case in Illinois.
For the third consecutive year, a growing number of libraries experienced fiscal drops in 2011, according to the report by the ALA and the University of Maryland team.
More than 76 percent of libraries surveyed reported not having enough computers to meet public demand, the survey said, and 16 percent reported decreasing operating hours in the past year, up from 14.5 percent the year before, the survey said.
Despite the industrywide financial crunch, libraries see their programs — particularly job-assistance programs — as central to their mission, said Robert P. Doyle, executive director of the Illinois Library Association.
Funding them is "just as crucial" as funding other services, he said.
"The mantra in libraries today is how to find ways to do things more collaboratively and efficiently and find ways to provide all the services their patrons need, one way or the other," Doyle said in an email.
That mindset has led Cook Memorial staffers to work with local schools, village officials, park districts and chambers of commerce on programming, Kershner said. They also get discounted or free supplies and services from local businesses and borrow equipment when possible to keep costs down.
For Tuesday's online job searching programs and similar efforts planned through March, the instructors are employees of a Waukegan agency that helps people with disabilities find work.
It's part of what Kershner called "the three C's."
"Communicate, cooperate and collaborate," he said.
The West Chicago Public Library is experiencing demand for job-assistance programs, too. This summer, the city's unemployment rate was 11 percent, higher than the state average, Adult Services Manager Benjamin Weseloh said.
Every day, people were asking staffers for help creating resumes and writing cover letters, Weseloh recalled.
"We said, 'We need to do something about the unemployment rate in this community,'" he said. "It's affecting this community in a big way."
An early step saw the library bring in a retired professional to help patrons with resumes and cover letters. In November and December, the library offered more formal classes on creating those documents, interviewing skills and even job hunting during the holiday season.
More programs are planned for the spring, including one aimed at older people looking for work.
"We have books and other resources, but there's nothing like a little one-on-one (assistance)," Weseloh said.
Vernon Hills resident Ellen Peckler quit her job as a proposal writer with Aon Hewitt in November because she wants to work for a nonprofit company.
She attended Tuesday's class at Cook Park Library to learn about new websites offering employment opportunities.
She called the library's jobs programs "wonderful."
"It's a one-stop shop," Peckler said of the library. "I'm very grateful to have that."
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