A Community Approach to Job Recovery

How New Technologies and Ideas Allow One Library to Help Job Seekers One at a Time
Bensenville, IL
Bill Erbes

By shifting the focus of its team, its budget, its technology, and its volunteers, the Bensenville Community has made supporting job seekers and entrepreneurs a community effort.

In this case study, TechSoup for Libraries talks with Bill Erbes, Assistant Library Director at Bensenville Community Library in Illinois, whose library serves as an example of Edge Benchmark #3:  The library supports use of public technology for workforce development and entrepreneurship.

The Bensenville Community Library is about 30 minutes west of Chicago, serving a population of just over 22,000. There are 11 full time and 20 part time staff. According to Erbes, "that total includes everyone, from the maintenance man to the kids who shelve books — all are critical to what we do here."

Here, Erbes supervises circulation, as well as adult and technical services. He is also responsible for the library’s technology programs and currently spends the bulk of his time administering grant activities.

The Bensenville Community Library strives to meet the needs of job seekers and entrepreneurs through an array of technology and training services. The success of these programs has been augmented by the library’s active, continuous engagement with its patrons via informal, brief check-ins, as well as through strategic follow-up phone calls. This ongoing dialogue has helped cement community trust in the library and created a meaningful feedback loop that has allowed staff to identify the most efficient ways to use limited resources to support community needs. By shifting the priorities of both its staff and its budget, this small library has been able to make a meaningful impact on the lives of a community struggling with the economic recession.

The Bensenville library offers an array of technology tools for job seekers. These include:

  • Resume and business card software, (plus card stock so that anyone can leave the library with 50 printed business cards).
  • Up-to-date online content highlighting job-seeking strategies and entrepreneurial resources.
  • Business Plan Pro software that allows patrons to create a business plan.
  • Access to Universal Class, which has around 100 library patrons registered at any given time.

Software resources and online tools are only the beginning. Recognizing that job-seeking and starting new businesses are complex tasks, the Bensenville staff additionally offer various training opportunities to help patrons acquire the skills they need. Having learned by experience that one-on-one training is one of the most effective ways to meet patrons’ needs, each staff member is available for individual help and attention, with volunteers recruited to fill in on additional topic areas. The library also applies for grants to offer training in specific areas, such as its Career Boot Camp, which taught 21st century skills for enhancing job searches.

Below, Erbes shares what makes his program successful, and what he has learned in the process.

What made your library successful?

Erbes is quick to point out that the staff at Bensenville Community Library have embraced the idea that they each have something to contribute to address this community challenge. Through this process, they have provided many different types of technologies and services, and reached out to new members of the community to create new partnerships.

However, beyond the breadth of services on offer, Erbes says, lies a depth of concern and empathy for its community members. As a trusted community institution, the library has become a safe, nonjudgmental place for people to come to deal with the often overwhelming difficulties associated with unemployment.  Each staff member is encouraged to check in regularly with patrons and engage them in conversation. “We have heard so many times how nobody responds to their letters of application,” said Erbes. “Nobody seems to care. I can’t fix that, but I can listen to it. I can empathize. I think that helps, too.”

What did you learn during this process?

Through the process of providing increased workforce recovery services, Erbes notes, three best practices have emerged for Bensenville Community Library.

First: "Nothing is sacred," said Erbes. The library aggressively revised its budget to find money for the resources it needed, with staff members adopting the attitude that, in an effort to solve a community problem, anything can be altered or readjusted. At one point, money was diverted from the library’s fiction budget to resources to support workforce recovery programs and services. “The public understands,” said Erbes. “I can say I spent less on fiction this year because we have this problem. And they will say, ‘Yeah, I know we do. And it is okay.’”

Secondly, the library has learned that individual instruction and encouragement are both more effective and valuable to community members than general classes. Working with a team of volunteers, the library staff at Bensenville Community Library ensure that any patron can get the instruction he or she needs to move forward every day — not just on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Thirdly, the library has embraced the importance of following up with patrons, a practice that has developed organically. "What else can we do? Where are you having trouble?" asks Erbes. "It all just gets back to talking to them and keeping track of where they are now." The library staff regularly shares strategies for checking in on patrons and making follow-up calls. Following up with patrons has additional benefits. Hearing patrons’ success stories reminds library staff about the importance of their work and motivates them to continue. These follow-ups have also helped the library communicate the success of their programs with its board. "I will say, 'This individual came to us with this situation,'" said Erbes. 'Here is what we did, and here is where they are.' Personal stories are far better than numbers any day."

What was the key to your success?

At the core of Bensenville Community Library’s success is staff involvement, Erbes said. Each staff member works together on workforce recovery, participating in staff meetings and in-service days focused on addressing this community issue. The result, Erbes notes, is a dedicated team of people getting the word out about available programs and services and promoting the library as welcoming place. This collaborative approach has also resulted in recruitment efforts outside of the library. From Facebook-savvy high school students to retired business professionals, the staff thinks creatively about how it can involve the community and leverage skills and expertise to address challenges. "Everybody is involved,” said Erbes. "And I think that’s the most important thing. I certainly haven’t done this alone. It has been a remarkable group effort that has made it happen."


What would you do differently?

While the Bensenville Community Library has had many successes, Erbes notes that, early in its work, a lot of “time, effort, energy, and maybe even dollars” were spent reinventing the wheel. In hindsight, he says it’s easy to see that many of the resources that the library staff needed and were trying to create already existed. The team is now familiar with many available tools, templates, and resources, and in turn has begun sharing the resources it has created. But if they had it to do over, Erbes says, he would have started out by becoming “more familiar — or at least as familiar as I am now — with all the tools that are already sitting out there waiting to be used.”

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Erbes offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Throw out the idea that you don’t have money or time to support workforce development. "My answer to both would be, 'Yes you do, and yes you do,'" Erbes said, adding that you may have to raid other budgets, or think creatively about how you leverage staff and volunteer time, but the money and the time is there. “I don’t have new money, but I just have to use the old money in different ways,” he added.
  2. Take advantage of Project Compass. Visit the WebJunction’s Project Compass workbook training manual to locate hundreds of free resources and ideas for supporting workforce development in your community. "It is all right there in the book," said Erbes. "There are also ways to go about developing [these resources] for your own individual situation."
  3. Get every member of your staff involved. "It is a noble project. It is a necessary project. And people want to help," said Erbes. "Use everybody on your staff. Forget whether they are on the maintenance crew or they are the library director." Look beyond your staff, too, says Erbes. "Especially when you see older people, retired people coming into the library to read the newspaper or to chit chat," said Erbes. "They are looking for things to do. They love to get involved in this. And what better minds to use than those who have been doing this all their lives?"

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

Erbes suggests the following:

  1. Download the Project Compass workbook. Throw out the idea of money and think creatively about what you would do if you had all the money in the world to help with this problem. Take the ideas from the workbook and make some baby steps. "Anything you do helps," Erbes said.
  2. Fill out the Action Plan in the Project Compass workbook. Instead of worrying about everything you can’t do, create an action plan. This plan will help you decide on one thing to start with; you can do more over time.
  3. Prioritize your spending. Remember that you don’t have to adhere to the way things have always been done in the past. Be ruthless. You can find places to cut and adjust your budget to make this work.