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Libraries see a surge in job seekers who need help using computers

Posted by Editor on September 21, 2010

By DAN SIMMONS | dsimmons@madison.com | 608-252-6136 | Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2010 7:51 pm | (8) Comments, in the Wisconsin State Journal

Vishada Johnson kept plenty busy the last 15 years, working and raising a family. But her technology skills lagged.

“I know I’m a third-grader when using the computer sometimes,” she said with a laugh. “My kids are better at it than I am.”

So she, like many others lacking a computer at home but looking for work, went to what has become a de facto job center in an increasingly technological age: the public library.

Internet use at the nine public libraries in Madison increased 23 percent from 2008 to 2009 and is projected to go up 27 percent this year over last based on numbers through August.

The steep recent jumps owe to the swollen unemployment ranks due to the economic recession and an increase in people who, like Johnson, need a job but also need training in the basic computer skills now all but essential in finding work, said Lisa Mettauer, outreach librarian at the central branch.

To deal with the boost in demand, the library started offering one-on-one tutoring to job seekers in April 2009, using federal stimulus funds. A federal Americorps VISTA volunteer, Jim Handorf, started the program and oversaw it.

The program has since expanded to six locations throughout the city. The most recent startup began Monday in the Allied Drive neighborhood, with the library partnering with the county’s Joining Forces for Families program.

Johnson saw an ad for the program in June and has been meeting with a tutor in an upstairs computer room at the central branch every Monday since, learning skills her kids’ generation may take for granted: opening browser windows, searching online job boards, filling out applications, opening and sending e-mail messages.

It hasn’t led to a job yet but has allowed her to do something she couldn’t previously do — apply for four hospital jobs online.

“I’m more confident now,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of things done with help they’ve given me.”

The library uses grant money to hire Writing Lab tutors from UW-Madison for specialized help in writing resumes and cover letters and other volunteers for help in basic computer and Internet skills.

The help sessions are open to anyone who signs up and attract a broad range of people.

“Some have a high school education, some have a master’s degree,” said Emily Minerath, another Americorps VISTA worker who now coordinates the program. “Some want resume help, some need to learn to use a mouse.”

On a recent Monday, Jada Smith, an unemployed elder care worker, needed help opening up a browser window to change her resume and send it as an attachment. Meanwhile, Danna Olsen, currently employed as a certified nursing assistant, sought help in revising and improving her resume.

Minerath took over coordinating the program this summer amid her own career transition. The 2009 Oberlin College graduate did a year in a graduate program in chemistry at UW-Madison last year before discovering chemistry wasn’t for her. So she’s coordinating the job-help program this year and applying to graduate school in library science for next fall.

“I’m pretty sure librarians can change the world,” she said. “Libraries are such resources and librarians make it all happen.”

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