Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) returned to his hometown of Cranston on Friday to announce the introduction of the Workforce Investments through Local Libraries act (WILL). Speaking to a group of digital literacy trainers at Cranston’s Central Library, Reed introduced the bi-partisan legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), supportive of the integration of public libraries into state and local workforce investment strategies.
“I want to applaud all of the ladies and gentlemen who are here for training. You are the people who are going to teach people how to access this digital world,” said Reed to a group of men and women gathered for a digital literacy trainer program. “You are indispensable in making sure people have a fighting chance in a very complicated and very technical world.”
Upon passage, the WILL Act will recognize public libraries as “One-Stop” partners, authorizing new demonstration and pilot projects to establish employment resources in public libraries. One-Stop career centers, operated under DLT, provide resources for job seekers.
“We in Rhode Island have become the leader in broadband Internet access,” said Reed. “We rank first in the nation for broadband speed and we rank third for broadband coverage. We have moved forward into this new technological era.”
Reed went on to explain the backbone of the program, the OSHEAN Inc.’s Beacon 2.0 network, funded through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The project, using more than $21 million in federal funds in a grant to the Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development Administrative Network, links institutions across Rhode Island and Bristol County, Mass., including libraries, through a fiber-optic cable network and increases the state’s ability to provide high speed Internet access to Rhode Island residents. Included in the network are schools, libraries, universities, community colleges, hospitals and government agencies.
Under the award, the grant will improve access to institutions (potentially 383 K-12 schools and 72 libraries) through the Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology.
According to the grants award summary, the project will create an estimated 210 direct jobs over the first three years, and is expected to provide the infrastructure for many more knowledge economy jobs in the future.
“Libraries, to me, are one of the most personable places where we can bring technology to the people,” said Reed. “For people who can’t afford to buy services, to buy hardware, the library is here and it is evolving. It has always been the core of our community.”
The focal point of the meeting was the need for computer and technological skills in today’s workforce.
“You can’t apply for a job today unless you can get on a computer,” said Reed. “You have to be on a computer and you need to be constantly on a computer.”
Approximately 29 percent of people don’t have broadband access and are made to seek access to both computers and Internet.
The library network, in partnership with DLT, has begun to install specially formatted computers in area libraries in order to allow the public direct access to the unemployment system.
Fifteen local libraries are already on board. Libraries in Cranston, Warwick, West Warwick, Central Falls, East Providence, Greenville, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, South Kingstown, Westerly, Woonsocket, Harrisville and Harmony benefited from a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to install the computers.
The Warwick library on Sandy Lane has one DLT computer available and participates in workforce training by providing workforce training.
“We have a newly created career center where we house workforce materials, including testing books, résumé building and career guidance materials,” said Jana Stevenson, public services manager.
The library plans to move the DLT access computer to the career center within a month and will also be expanding its tech center.
“It is going to be a significant benefit for people who are looking for work and need support, encouragement and information in that process,” said Charles Fogarty, director of DLT. “The governor and I want to support the WILL act. We recognize the valuable role that libraries play as a workforce resource.”
“If you don’t have the ability to access the Internet, if you don’t know how to use a computer, you are almost unemployable today,” said Fogarty. “And in two years you will be unemployable.”
DLT has been working to place computers in libraries across the state.
“What we have a responsibility to do at the government in combination with the private sector and our non-profits is to work to provide opportunities for people to get trained to have that access so that they can remain a vital part of the workforce and contribute to the success and prosperity of the state,” said Fogarty. “This will help do that using libraries as a vital component.”
At state-operated One-Stop centers, the trained staff provides work search, résumé writing and interviewing support to job seekers.
“We are privileged in Rhode Island to have all of our libraries working together. With your library card, you have access to all libraries in all 39 cities and towns,” said Howard Boksenbaum, chief library officer. “They all share resources. For the last couple of years we’ve been building some statewide resources, too. The more people who can get online in more places, the better off we are.”
The Learning Express program and Career Services, job skills development and testing services, were two of the supportive workforce programs mentioned by Boksenbaum.
“Remember, every time you come to the library, you learn something,” said Reed.