When COVID-19 began pummeling our region last spring, staff at Seattle Public Library quickly assessed which of their programs needed expanding. As an increasing number of Washingtonians began losing jobs due to the pandemic, it became abundantly clear that residents needed information about how to effectively search for unemployment information and new employment — and quickly.
Marion Scichilone, an assistant managing librarian at downtown’s Central Library, was part of the initial group discussing the region’s mounting job loss crisis. The concept? Your Next Job, a free, one-on-one search service launched in July 2020 by Seattle Public Library, along with King County Library System and Seattle Jobs Initiative, a nonprofit that helps prepare people for living-wage careers. As of Dec. 7, Sno-Isle Libraries joined the partnership, bringing Your Next Job’s personalized job search assistance to Snohomish and Island counties residents too.
To date, more than 300 patrons have requested help. The library doesn’t track how many of those have secured employment, but does report that the majority of participants who responded to a follow-up survey said the program provided opportunities to build the skills they needed to find a job.
Prior to the pandemic, Seattle Public Library collaborated with WorkSource at several locations to run in-person sessions that helped patrons connect to job resources. (WorkSource is a statewide partnership of state, local and nonprofit agencies providing employment and training services to Washington job seekers and employers.) Yet SPL hadn’t addressed unemployment in quite this way — in many languages, with several partners, and with help provided on various platforms including phone, text, email and more — until the COVID-19 economic crisis pushed them to create this new virtual service.
Early on, Seattle resident Stephen Jackson learned about the community resource via the library email list. He praises the program not only for the abundance of information provided — on topics from job search engines to food stamps — but also for the emotional role librarians play in simply listening to patrons’ struggles. “They were very thorough, very precise, very informative,” he said. “It’s amazing that the library is doing this.”
Although Your Next Job helps everyone who reaches out from any of the three library systems (no library card necessary), Scichilone said, “The focus has been on those who have high needs.” The service was especially designed to serve job seekers who have barriers to finding unemployment — whether they lack digital proficiency, have limited English language or work skills, or have a disability. The program offers one-on-one appointments in 11 languages plus American Sign Language.
From April through June, Scichilone and her colleagues went into deep planning mode while gathering and training the team. Their most challenging question: How do we have an appointment with someone whose only technology is a phone? They’ve since figured out how to exchange job search and unemployment information via video meetings, emails, text threads and basic phone calls. Librarians work diligently to provide information to anyone seeking help. “That’s what the library has always been about,” Scichilone said.
After initial marketing efforts, a deluge of appointments were scheduled. The program has experimented with various approaches to spreading the word, consistently focusing on “people who have the most need.” In order to expand its resources, the team has also collaborated with other city departments like the Office of Economic Development, and organizations like Building Our Bridge.
Scichilone explains that accessing Your Next Job is as easy as making an appointment online at the SPL website or calling its main phone line to set up the evaluation process. Applicants submit their contact information and availability (for appointments on Mondays through Saturdays), while describing the help they need and preferred method of contact. Before each appointment, the assigned librarian does preliminary research, preparing to offer assistance that can range from teaching basic tech skills and reviewing résumé resources to helping find interview coaching supports or referrals to workforce and social service organizations. Although Your Next Job can’t help patrons with existing unemployment claims, they can point them in the right direction to set up a new application.
Often, not everything gets accomplished in a single 30-minute appointment, so patrons sign up for subsequent sessions. Librarians have noticed that many patrons simply need to talk and unload their worries; for some, this is the first person they’ve connected with outside of home. “We’re not just helping with job search information,” said Scichilone. These sessions prove very rewarding for librarians, too, who have been encouraged to hone their “excellent listening skills.”
Due to his age and prior health conditions, Jackson quit his essential services job over concerns of coronavirus exposure. From the end of July until the beginning of December, he connected with Your Next Job staff about twice a month. During each session, the librarian set up goals for the next meeting. “This is very helpful and motivational,” he said, “especially when they are offering additional resources for achieving those goals.”
The job search continues for the 62-year-old, “semiretired” writer (he’s admittedly “very particular” about the work he currently seeks), who says that through the program, he gained knowledge of new job search sites, unemployment eligibility updates and sign-up info for Apple Health (Medicaid) coverage. He also made valuable discoveries on the resource page, like learning it wasn’t necessary to pay for a tutorial to set up his own WordPress site.
“One of the aspects I absolutely love,” Jackson added, is “it’s very much a support group.” Even though he considers himself a resourceful person, he said, “It’s just a comfort to know someone is there to offer support when everything seems to be falling apart around you.”
After each session, the librarian followed up with a summary and useful resource links.
Jackson adds that the chats were reciprocal, as he sometimes passed on information he had learned (regarding vision and dental insurance offerings, for example). “That exchange of information is very important too,” he commented.
Seattle Public Library expects the program to evolve over time.
Once Washingtonians applying for unemployment benefits are required to perform a weekly job search (a requirement that is currently suspended during the pandemic), the library expects increased interest in their services. “We know we’ll be helping even more people,” Scichilone said, “and we’re looking forward to it.”