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COVID-19 Makes Library Skilling Programs Critical

by Sally Saville Hodge on February 5, 2021

Sally Saville Hodge is a content and media consultant to the Public Library Association. For more information on programs of the Public Library Association, contact pla@ala.org.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic’s fallout decimated the U.S. jobs economy, particularly for low-income Americans, the uneven expanse of digital skills among Americans was a significant barrier against their ability to achieve better lives.

Noting the negative impact on economic mobility and business competitiveness, a 2020 report by National Skills Coalition shared alarming data. Among workers aged 16 to 64, 13% have no digital skills; those of another 18% are very limited. Some 35% have a baseline proficiency, while only the final 33% have advanced skills.

Improving their communities’ digital literacy is important for public libraries as they seek to live up to their mission. The challenge has taken on new urgency as we fight against the economic costs of the pandemic. At stake? The U.S. could lose $162 billion in annual revenues without people able to fill some 150 million new tech-oriented jobs.

As 2021 advances, public libraries across the country can learn from the successful digital skilling programs of the Washington State Library and the Kenton County Public Library in Covington, Kentucky. They can find support for their efforts through an initiative launched in 2020 by Microsoft that’s been extended through this year – its Global Skills program that offers free or deeply discounted resources to help people grow their computer skills and succeed in their job searches.

Microsoft’s Global Skills initiative is an expansive effort that gives access to the learning and support available through its units like LinkedIn and LinkedIn Learning. Not only can the public research which jobs are most in demand and skills needed to fill them, but the company is providing free access to learning paths and content to make essential skills easier to acquire. Also offered are low-cost badges and certifications and free job-seeking tools. Course content and tools are available in English, Spanish, French, and German.

Certification Offers Tangible Proof of Digital Skills

It’s the Washington State Library system’s emphasis on offering paths to certification that helps to make its digital skilling programs stand out. The Washington State Library has been building out its workforce development efforts since 2013 as the state was emerging from the last recession. The program, funded by the state, offers a robust selection of courses through its 400-plus public library locations to help advance digital skills at all levels.

As important as the learning opportunity is for the citizens of Washington state, however, the system’s support and advocacy of certification is a big differentiator. It responds to tech industry employers’ requirement that top candidates show tangible proof of their knowledge and skills.

Elizabeth Iaukea, Washington’s workforce development librarian, points out, ”If we’re serious about the value of what people are learning for employment, certification is key. It has always been highly valued in the IT field where the speed of change and the development of new technologies outpaces the educational system, and many are self-taught. Certification is also increasingly recognized in other professions as the best way to validate a specific skillset acquired through non-traditional learning.”

While the skills that employers in Washington demand fluctuate, the top 25 are fairly consistent. Proficiency in Microsoft Office and its productivity tools is typically at the top of the list. Also in high demand: knowledge of software development principles, and finance, billing, and invoicing skills. These are all certified through Washington’s program.

Many of those that Washington libraries aim to serve don’t know enough about certifications to recognize their value or how to earn them. Because of that, the program presents the certification process in three steps – learn, practice, certify – with hands-on practice and practice tests as part of the approach. Online learning that’s mapped to certification is accessible through the Washington library system at Microsoft Imagine Academy and LinkedIn Learning.

Certifications currently supported include Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS), Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA), Microsoft Technology Certification (MTC), Microsoft Certified Educator (MCE), IC3 digital literacy, Quickbooks, Adobe Certified Associate (ACA), and Unity Certified User.

“Certification is increasingly recognized by many professions as the best way to validate a specific skillset acquired through nontraditional learning,” says Iaukea. “It’s especially helpful for helping entry-level people and career changers prove continuous learning and growth.

“Libraries are all about nontraditional learning and fund many options for technology related professional development. But if we’re serious about the value of these for employment, certification is key,” she adds.

Job Search Central

As recently as 2016, the communities served by the Kenton County Public Library were enjoying full employment. Located in Covington, Kentucky, the library serves the tri-state area where Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana meet. Big local employers like Amazon and FedEx were battling for entry-level employees in service, warehousing, and logistics. Tech skills weren’t in high demand, and the training offered by many community organizations was sufficient.

The environment forced the Kenton County Public Library to think about new strategies to support workforce development. How could they engage the community with digital media and help narrow the digital divide, but not duplicate any efforts of their community partners?

Their strategy was to target the underserved market segment of mid- to late-career professionals. They were judged in need of support in career transitioning and job search, and many needed to refresh their understanding of the digital tools prevalent in today’s jobs environment.

The new program, Job Search Central, was critical when it started, because employer investment in training had been declining over the last decade, leaving many mid- and late-career professionals stagnant in their skills. The need has only grown in relevance since the COVID pandemic disrupted the economy and the job market in the tri-state region.

A support group for job-seekers is part of the program that has gotten a lot of traction. “It started out with six to eight people attending weekly meetings and has grown to about 100,” says Natalie Ruppert, MLIS, the library’s manager for workforce development. These meetings, held every Wednesday morning, and on Zoom since March, 2020, feature announcements, then a volunteer guest speaker and a roundtable discussion where people share their job search status and where they need help.

“What they like is that we listen, we respond, and we share resources. We do a lot of networking with community partners and we share leads. We celebrate successes. It builds library loyalty. And during 2019-2020, 270 people who participated landed jobs, mainly in the tri-state area,” Ruppert adds.

The Kenton County Public Library program also encourages participants to become “students” of the job search process through specific beginner and advanced tracks for learning:

  • Beginner classes focus on Google tools from e-mail to résumé templates, the basics of Microsoft Teams, and the ins and outs of Windows 10, Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Participants also learn about their transferrable skills. Workshops on résumé writing, cover letters and interviewing are also held.
  • Advanced job search programs look at creating marketing plans and resumes for federal positions and networking workshops via LinkedIn.

Since the program’s launch, the library and community it serves have come full circle, thanks to the pandemic. The ensuing economic downturn has hurt low-skilled workers, who now need to acquire digital skills as well as basic job search knowledge. Kenton and its community partners have undertaken outreach to help them with digital literacy programs and raise their awareness about virtual job fairs. A federal dislocated worker grant in August has helped the library bolster its efforts and add staff to help citizens navigate career change.

For more information on Microsoft’s skilling initiative, the work of the Washington State Library, or how Kenton County Public Library is pivoting to serve job seekers in the community, watch the Public Library Association’s free recorded webinar, 150 Million New Technology-Oriented Jobs and the Skills Needed to Get Them.