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Employment Help? It’s in the Bag

Reference Desk Associate T. J. Rankin (left) and Circulation Supervisor Brenda Choy create "job fairs in a bag" at Tyler (Tex.) Public Library. Photo: Tyler (Tex.) Public Library
Reference Desk Associate T. J. Rankin (left) and Circulation Supervisor Brenda Choy create “job fairs in a bag” at Tyler (Tex.) Public Library. Photo: Tyler (Tex.) Public Library

When in-person programming is unsafe, how do you help community members find much-needed employment? Tyler (Tex.) Public Library (TPL) came up with a novel way: creating a “job fair in a bag.” Through a lot of community partnering and a little creativity, the library was able to reach 150 patrons in need. It all began with a question: “If a crafting event can be turned into a kit, why can’t a job fair?”

As we’ve seen during this pandemic, stay-at-home orders and a strained economy have led to one massive need in our communities: jobs. There’s probably no better time to hold a job fair. Yet this same pandemic means that events at which large groups of people rotate in and out present a major health hazard.

This was the challenge Tyler (Tex.) Public Library faced last year. Pre-pandemic, our reference and youth departments had already planned to hold a job fair in May. Then COVID-19 hit, and all library programs—including the fair—were canceled. At the same time, we watched the national unemployment rate spike from 4.5% in March to 14.7% in April. We needed to serve the unemployed, but we needed to do it safely.

We noticed that across the nation, libraries were converting programming into kits, such as take-and-make bags that allowed patrons to create crafts at home. If a crafting event can be turned into a kit, why can’t a job fair? After all, job fair attendees usually receive bags filled with brochures, pamphlets, coupons, and other resources. Why not eliminate the middleman and just distribute the bags? With that, our take-home job fair kits were born.

Knowing that lists of job openings would become out of date too quickly, my colleagues Stephen Hildalgo (TPL youth services assistant), Amy Skipper (TPL youth librarian), and I shifted away from featuring prospective employers, instead highlighting more general information, such as job-searching tips, hiring agencies that have perpetual demand, and degree- or certificate-conferring institutions. Some of the vendors we had planned to feature at the in-person fair fit that bill, so we requested and received informational fliers and brochures from them.

To make the kits more appealing, we solicited vendor donations of small, useful items such as stress balls, nail files, notepads, bookmarks, and pens (so many pens!). In addition, we asked several local restaurants to donate coupons, which they gladly did. We also added some of our own efforts, such as illustrations of appropriate job-interview attire and a step-by-step worksheet for creating a compelling, eye-catching résumé. Except for those handouts, all the items that went into the bags—about 3,000 pieces—were donated.

In the end, we connected with at least 20 restaurants, temp agencies, colleges, and other organizations, such as the Texas Workforce Commission. One donated item I’m particularly fond of: coupons for the local Salvation Army Family Store allowing anyone buying job-interview clothes to receive 25% off their purchase.

These efforts provided us with many new contacts and collaborations. We took things a step further by asking the Salvation Army, along with local food pantry People Attempting to Help (PATH), to hand out some job-fair bags, too. To reach as many people as possible, we gave 50 bags to each organization and kept 50 to distribute ourselves.

When distribution time came in October, we set the bags on a table in the library lobby for patrons to take as they liked. To monitor our pandemic-induced patron capacity limit, our library stationed a staff member or volunteer in the lobby; that person was there to explain what the bags were and answer questions about them.

Because this was our first kit aimed at adult patrons, I was nervous about the response. Turns out there was not much to be concerned about. Bags at the library were gone before the week was over. We heard patrons give positive comments and praise for the kits; one person in particular happily reported that the information in them helped him net a better-paying job. Our partners at Salvation Army and PATH reported that the bags they distributed were equally well received and appreciated.

What with arranging the tables, corralling exhibitors, and dealing with inevitable last-minute cancellations, job fairs are stressful to pull off. But if you help just one person to get a job, it’s all worth it. The same is true with our kits—especially during an economic crisis like a pandemic.

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