July 2009: This Library System Means Business
The Orlando area has been booming this decade, led in part by a $13.4 billion technology sector that employs 53,000 people. But the region also has a technology deficit: Workforce surveys show that the greatest challenge for employers is workers’ lack of basic and technical skills. Employers cite the need for training opportunities for non-English speakers as another major challenge.
When Workforce Central Florida (WCF), a state agency, published its 2004 State of the Workforce Report, the Orange County Library System (OCLS) saw an opportunity to expand both its course offerings and its partnership with the business community. OCLS already offered computer classes and had worked with businesses to modify courses in office software. OCLS also provided some classes in Spanish, to serve the 22 percent of county residents who are Hispanic.
"The report led us to approach the WCF and talk about training needs in the community and how we could complement what they offer. It turned our focus from offering computer training based on home use to expanding our curriculum to concentrate on what today’s job seekers and employers need," said Jo Ann Sampson, Grow Your Business project director and now the Special Services Department Head at the OCLS Main Library.
"There were also a lot of people moving into the area that were looking into starting their own small businesses," she added.
OCLS proposed the Grow Your Business project to create new training classes and deliver them in multiple ways in three languages: English, Spanish, and Haitian-Creole—the latter to serve a growing Haitian-Creole population.
In 2006, IMLS awarded OCLS an $185,000 National Leadership Grant for Libraries to help fund the project.
The Planning Stage
Grow Your Business provided two computer training tracks: a Small Business Track for employers and small businesses; and a Job Seekers Course Track for employees and job seekers.
Library staff devoted the first six months of the project to planning and preparation. They had to develop courses from scratch and prepare to deliver them in different ways: as face-to-face classes, online tutorials, or—for the first time at OCLS—live online classes.
To facilitate the multiple delivery methods, OCLS purchased computers, software, and accessories, including projection and sound equipment for all training classrooms in the library system. The library also bought 108 new books of interest to small businesses and job seekers.
OCLS also bought equipment to create a mobile wireless computer lab, consisting of 12 laptops and one application server with software, as well as an LCD projector and a wireless printer. The equipment fit on a cart, which could be loaded onto a van and taken to the 12 libraries that lacked training rooms.
OCLS hired an academic consultant to review its existing training curriculum and plans for new courses. Fourteen half-day workshops were held for five staff to learn instructional design and to create online tutorials.
The Computer Resource Center at the Main Library developed a total of 20 in-person training classes: ten in English, six translated into Spanish, and four into Haitian-Creole. The library also created six online tutorials in English, three in Spanish, and two in Haitian-Creole.
Eight classes—three in English, three in Spanish, and two in Haitian-Creole—were adapted for live online instruction.
The Job Seeker Course Track offered classes such as resume writing, writing cover letters, finding a job, and successful job interviewing, as well as desktop publishing and Adobe Photoshop.
The Small Business Course Track featured classes in starting a business, bookkeeping, and marketing. OCLS also acquired a Web-based typing tutor program called TypingMaster Online.
Both training tracks included software classes in Microsoft Office, Intuit QuickBooks, and HTML.
Classes were free to Orange County residents and $10 for nonresidents for in-person classes and $25 for live online classes.
OCLS marketed the project through its Web site, e-mail newsletters, and print ads in local newspapers. Library staff also met with business owners and community leaders and attended business outreach events. Workforce Central Florida was a key partner.
Grow Your Business was a success, providing services to 17,068 people from October 2006 to March 2008. The 14 branch libraries and the Main Library delivered 3,325 class sessions. Some 11,763 people attended classes in person; 3,922 used online tutorials; 90 participated in live online classes; and 512 used the online typing classes. A total of 1,660 people attended classes in Spanish, and 216 attended classes in Haitian-Creole. The 108 new books circulated 681 times.
At first, the online courses were sparsely attended. "It started off pretty slow, you know, with five, six students—that was a few years ago—now today we have an average of 20 to 21 students in our online classes. And the economy is a big factor in that increase," said Ormilla Vengersammy, technology training manager at the OCLS Main Library and head of its Computer Resource Center.
Feedback from project participants was positive. Ninety-three percent (8,887) of those who responded to a class survey said they gained new knowledge and skills. Also, 100 percent (43) of participants interviewed about the classes given in Spanish or Haitian-Creole indicated that they learned more effectively when training was offered in their native language.
Another measure of success is the program’s enduring popularity. People continued to pack the classes after the grant ended. In 2008, a total of 43,000 people participated in 13,000 class sessions.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
OCLS discovered it was something of a challenge to get the business community to understand the quality of training that the library can offer. "There was some feeling by people that, well, if it’s free and it’s the library, how good can it be? So we had to really work to show them that, no, you can get a good-quality product and that we really are dedicated to giving good training," explained Sampson.
One lesson learned was that it pays to think outside of the box when it comes to community outreach. "Sometimes you have to try some nontraditional ways of contacting or getting into the community. We were doing things like going to church leaders. We actually took our mobile lab to one of the large Haitian-Creole churches in the county, to kind of take our training to them, which seemed to be popular," said Sampson.
Another lesson concerned course scheduling. Traditionally, a specific software class progressed through various levels in consecutive weeks, but patrons asked if all the levels could be given on the same day. OCLS now offers an "Office Week" twice a month at its main location, during which each day is devoted to one of the Microsoft Office programs. For example, Monday would be Microsoft Word day, and an employee could be sent for a full day of training in Word, Levels 1–4.
Students said this change has made it more convenient for them to leave work to get the training.
OCLS has continued to market its classes by attending business expos, making contacts at a Spanish radio station, and hosting open houses for the Haitian community. In addition, OCLS has shared online interactive tutorials and online classes in both English and Spanish with other county libraries in Florida.
"There’s a lot that can be done with computer training that isn’t necessarily just in person in a classroom. There could be a real future for libraries within the whole eLearning environment," said Sampson.