Maine Librarians Bridge Digital Job Divide

By KISTINE CAROLAN, New America Foundation

Patrick Therrien holds a Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership and a Graduate Certification in Human Resources Management. During three months of unemployment, Therrien looked online to learn the latest tips on how to build his resume, write cover letters, and give a strong interview.

Despite his tech-savvy, he felt overwhelmed by the amount of information online.

Maine State Library

Maine State Library

Now, as the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program’s (BTOP) Trainer and Education Specialist for the Maine Public Library’s Information Commons Project, he has the chance to change other job seekers’ experiences. Through the project, he helps job seekers learn new digital skills and navigate the Internet for important employment resources.

The Information Commons Project (ICP) seeks to provide free high-speed Internet service to the general public, and to digitally engage underserved populations through 107 libraries across Maine. They are geographically dispersed; the longest distance between them stretches over 400 miles. Some of the libraries are even nestled on tiny islands off the coast.

The ICP is one of five federally-funded programs awarded to the State of Maine through BTOP. Janet McKenney, Director of Library Development, oversees this entire project at the Maine State Library and works with Tilson Technology Management, a project management firm, to close Maine’s

Therrien has noticed that job seekers often underestimate their skills and focus too narrowly on applying for positions similar to their previous jobs, so focuses on basic job-search skills in addition to digital skills training. He now reviews “transferable skills” with his classes. He often uses the example of the work librarians do to explain “transferable skills” to job seekers.“Librarians today are research artists. They’ve got great people skills and an administrative background. Let’s say a librarian loses their job, they could probably walk in as a paralegal. They may need to take a legal terminology class, but that’s one little hurdle; aside from that little hurdle, they can make that jump.

“When I talk about those cross-over skills in a class, I see the light bulbs really come on. It kind of gives them some more hope that when they go into class tomorrow, they have some other avenues to travel down,” he said.

These moments inspire his work. He sees students expand their job prospects when they learn that their skills are applicable to many positions. Students are inspired by Therrien’s own experience on the job hunt.

“When I got out of the military, I had no automotive experience,” he said. “But I just made that leap into the automotive field, as a manager using my people skills, overcoming the automotive knowledge part. They can see: I’m no different than they are. It leads them down the right path.”

Students in these classes are also better prepared for the broader employment process. In his classrooms, he trains individuals who have severely underdeveloped job searching skills.

One woman in her late 40s was worried about facing an interview lasting an hour and a half. Through the class, she learned how best to prepare for the interview by learning what materials to bring to it and what to expect.

Maine Elders Take the Digital Reins

Maine residents have the highest median age in the United States.

Maybe this explains why the ICP’s first “Facebook for Seniors” class at Bangor Public Library had a 50-person wait-list. Like many BTOP efforts, this program pairs “high-tech” trainings with “high-touch” support of the course instructors, which they find is essential to new users of technology.

The program aims to connect seniors with family and friends in new ways so that “seniors aren’t isolated, here in such a rural state,” said McKenney. “It’s a way to keep people connected virtually, and come to the library to talk to relatives far away and see grandkids’ pictures.”

Elders’ long-held attitudes toward technology often change following these trainings.

local TV station in Bangor interviewed one elder student after the class who said she had previously avoided computers because she was afraid of breaking such expensive equipment. Now, she is able to use computers without fear.

From work support to expanding access to educational resources for all ages, Maine’s BTOP projects actively prepare residents for a 21st century economy.

Originally published 15 February 2012 on the New American Foundation blog Dispatches From the Digital Frontier

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