Lifelong Leveraging of Human Potential: The Role of Public Libraries in Lifelong Workforce Training

Job displacement is nothing new to the American economy, but technological developments and the growing interconnectedness of global markets have created a new wave of challenges for the American worker. The specialized skillsets and technological fluency demanded by an economy increasingly dominated by companies outside of the manufacturing space have empowered the younger worker and marginalized the role of tenure and experience in career advancement. At the same time, the innovations created by the individuals in these specialized industries are putting others out of work, with about half of all jobs in both the U.S. and OECD countries projected to become automated over the next two decades, according to a 2016 study. What’s more, telecommunications and web-based technologies have enabled many of those workers displaced from waves of automation to participate in the gig economy, a growing portion of the labor market comprised of short-term contracts, freelance jobs, and one-off tasks. Faced with a future that threatens the average American worker, governments and companies must identify new models of workforce training that enable citizens to adapt and remain productive at a time when many skillsets have an increasingly small shelf-life.


The Catch 22 of Workforce Training

As a result of increased employee mobility in the U.S., employers are facing the question of whether it is worth it to invest in training when it is uncertain that a newly trained employee will stay with the company long enough to provide a return on investment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person will change jobs 12 times by the time he or she is 50. According to another estimate, the average tenure at a job for American workers born between 1979 and 1999 is 2.2 years or less. While some highly profitable firms have the resources to be creative in how they incentivize employees to stay – for example, many tech firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on holiday parties as an incentive to retain employees who are courted by rival companies – others feel they have no choice but to play it conservatively. With such a high level of turnover, what incentives do companies have to invest in their employees?

This system of cyclical adverse incentives can be labeled the Catch 22 of Workforce Training. Employers have no incentive to invest in employees because they fear that the individual will leave with the newly acquired skills, depriving them of their return on investment and potentially even using that training against the company as an employee of a better paying competitor. At the same time, employees have no incentive to stay at a company that will not invest in them, a sign of a career stuck in perpetual static routine. When the vicious cycle eventually devours the employment relationship, an employee that has gained no new skills leaves seeking a more fulfilling job and a company that only gained a routine employee for a short amount of time ends up with a sunk cost.


Automation and Re-Training

In addition to the high mobility rate of young workers in today’s global economy, technological automation is often a significant force leading to an individual’s exit from a company. With about one-third of global jobs expected to disappear due to automation over the next two decades, many will soon find themselves faced with unemployment and the challenge of retraining for a job that may not even exist yet. Even those who retain their job will be challenged with the need to re-train, with at least 30 percent of the tasks within 60 percent of jobs susceptible to automation using current computer technology, according to McKinsey.

While looming large scale automation does not threaten to end the existence of the human worker, it will require novel approaches to transitioning and re-training workers to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. While the U.S. Department of Labor through the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program offers income subsidies and job-searching assistance for workers displaced by trade agreements, the program only reaches a small percentage of those it was designed to support and does not cover those losing jobs to automation, a trend that accounts for over six times the amount of job loss in the U.S. compared to trade, according to a 2017 Ball State University study.

Forward-thinking reformers are already proposing changes to K-12 and university education systems to ensure that those that will soon enter the workforce are learning the soft skills necessary to remain adaptive in the face of automation forces. However, there are few institutions or initiatives designed to re-train those who have lost employment due to technological automation after decades of working for the same company or industry.


The Gig Economy

Others choose to avoid the Catch 22 of Workforce Training altogether and self-employ. Indeed, as Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger show, 94 percent of net job growth in the U.S. between 2005 to 2015 was the result of increases in independent contracting, freelance, and other non-traditional employment. This trend is expected to continue, with an Intuit study estimating that 40 percent of the entire U.S. workforce will consist of independent workers by 2020. This trend has even elevated the coffee shop to the status of workplace, with many owners transforming their café from being a hub of social activity to being an accessible place to get work done.

While task management websites enable freelancers and contractors to search for projects with greater efficiency, such websites typically do not offer hands-on training or development opportunities. Many independent workers continue for years doing the same routine work without being given the opportunity to cultivate more advanced skills. It is true that the motivation that allows individuals to thrive as independent workers may also enable them to teach themselves advanced skillsets through massive open online courses (MOOCs) or free Youtube tutorials. However, as soft skills become more valuable in the modern labor market, independent workers will also need training focused on areas like team work and project management, intercultural collaboration, and interdisciplinary communication that cannot be covered effectively with just a Wi-Fi connection.

As individuals employed in this type of non-traditional work move from gig to gig, often considering career switches in between, how are they supposed to gain the training and education they need to move forward?


Leveraging Libraries

What is needed is a neutral broker that is not caught up in the vicious cycle of the Catch 22 of Workforce Training and is versatile enough to support the training needs of all types of workers. Instead of creating a new institution that will have to build up public trust and reputation, governments can leverage institutions trusted by the public at large that exist within every local community and already contain many of the resources and programs needed to take on the role of workforce trainer.




Libraries have the key advantage of being public institutions, with residents of local neighborhoods already using them as safe places for community engagement. Two-thirds of Americans believe that it is very important to the community for the public library to provide job, employment, and career services. With many books and research materials now digitalized, libraries are no longer only repositories of books, but instead must become adaptive and constantly calibrate to the needs of its local community. Indeed, one of the most pressing needs of local communities today is the need for workforce retraining when automation or non-traditional employment require them to gain new skills or knowledge.

Libraries can serve as the vehicle of lifelong learning in today’s global society. With more libraries than McDonald’s built in the U.S., they have become key institutions within the social fabric of American communities. Even outside of the U.S., libraries already play vital roles in child development, creative arts, and inclusive innovation.

The use of libraries as part of government efforts to increase labor participation is nothing new. However, most libraries in the U.S. and around the world that claim to offer employment services focus mainly on interview training, resume and cover letter editing, and online job seeking assistance. For example, the public library in Newport, Rhode Island offers weekly classes taught by university professors to assist job seekers with good business practices and resume writing. In Florida, Broward County Public Library maintains a specialized collection of materials focused on managing a job search and submitting applications. Calgary Library in Canada holds drop-in networking sessions and events where job seekers can practice their pitch. In Hartford, Connecticut, library staff work with career agents to learn how to provide one-on-one career planning and job placement services to the unemployed.




Those programs that receive funding to provide more than just the basic job seeking support services still focus primarily on job entry, as opposed to training once an initial career has begun. While all of the public libraries in the above map have made significant strides in reforming to adjust to the 21st century needs of their local communities, there are few libraries that are addressing the need to retrain workers who have been laid off due to automation or globalization.


The Libraries of the Future

Both public and private organizations should recognize the central role libraries can play in serving as the vehicle of lifelong learning within the communities they are designed to serve. In practice, this means that libraries should transition from traditional repositories of books to dynamic institutions that:


  1. Leverage technology to train individuals on a large scale.

To ensure that all those needing retraining or job transition support have access to the services they need, any lifelong learning program should employ technological platforms to connect libraries, companies, incubators, government agencies, capital funders, and other actors within the economic ecosystem. Taking advantage of the mobility offered by online resources like massive open online courses (MOOCs), such a platform would combine human resources (experts, CEOs, start-up owners, hiring managers, etc.), educational resources (online coursework, how-to videos, training manuals, etc.), and career resources (credentialing and badging, certification portfolios, interactive resumes, etc.).

The librarians of the future can also use Blockchain – a distributed database of timestamped and decentralized transactions secured through cryptography – to record the employment and training history of patrons, and enable employers to easily access the verified database. Employers often spend thousands of dollars verifying the academic credentials or KSAs of potential employees. While outright fraud of resume credentials exists, job candidates are often simply overconfident of their abilities to carry out certain tasks, which may result in employers hiring someone with a learning curve far too high to make the investment worth it. Blockchain technology can not only provide librarians an efficient case management tool, but also employers incentives to work with the library by reducing the costs they otherwise might bear in repeatedly verifying candidate credentials.


  1. Work with local employers to design curriculum that prepares workers for the future.

Any institution responsible for the training of the future must educate individuals for both the skills of the current job market and those needed to adapt to the unknown. While it is important to focus on the current job market, especially for those who are re-training and seek to re-enter the work force quickly, technology is rapidly evolving. It is important to ensure that individuals are not investing in a skill that will be useless shortly after they enter the workforce. Libraries should focus on both working with employers to better understand pending innovations that require new skillsets, and developing programs that provide individuals the soft skills necessary to move into a new domain.

As the American Chamber of Commerce has highlighted, the challenge with this type of talent pipeline approach is that companies might be nervous to communicate their advanced processes to curriculum designers for fear of training an individual who could take that knowledge to a competitor. This is a challenge to this approach that should not be taken lightly, but it is not an insurmountable problem that should lead libraries to avoid this type of job-specific training. Groups like the West Texas Energy Consortium have tried to alleviate this concern by developing curriculum plans together to ensure all companies reap the gains of training without one gaining a competitive advantage over the other.


  1. Use training and apprenticeship periods subsidized via Adjustment Assistance and WIA/WIOA funds

Any re-training program should be coupled with an apprenticeship or internship period that exposes participants to real-time working scenarios within the companies most in need of high-skilled labor. Libraries can play a central role in contextualizing skill development in order to reduce the costly learning curve periods. This way, companies will be incentivized to support the re-training program because they will be gaining trained employees without having to pay the salary for an individual that is not yet capable of increasing the company’s productivity and output.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress authorized the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which designated public libraries as authorized providers of programs designed to help “job seekers and workers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market.” The legislation requires states to align workforce training programs to the needs of job seekers and, most importantly, promote training through a career pathways framework. As part of this alignment, the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA) is developing plans to encourage “state and local workforce investment boards, state workforce agencies, and One-Stop Career Centers to partner with public libraries to extend their career and employment services to job seekers and unemployed workers.”

At the same time, the Federal government uses the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) act to provide funding for re-training to those displaced by the effects of free trade agreements. This training is designed to transition workers into higher skilled jobs that are not priced out when companies gain access to lower-wage labor markets around the world. The proportion of workers displaced by automation continues to outpace the ratio of those unemployed due to trade globalization, and it therefore makes increasing to focus less on just trade displacement and instead enact a more general “Adjustment Assistance.” By providing libraries the funding needed to re-train the 47 percent of U.S. workers that will potentially be automated out of jobs over the next 20 years, local governments can ensure that the future workforce is dynamic.

Transitioning the TAA to a more generalized adjustment assistance requires new sources of government revenue. Officials in some states are pushing for a tax on job-automating robots that could be used to finance future adjustment assistance. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has gone even further, suggesting that a tax be placed upon every robot that comes in and replaces the human worker on a $50,000 salary level. Others have suggested installing a need-blind system of universal basic income that would provide a steady financial stipend to all citizens. Some countries such as the UK have taken the traditional route of raising taxes, imposing an “apprenticeship levy” that requires all employers with an annual payroll of $3.74 million or above to pay a tax of 0.5 percent of their payroll to spend on apprenticeship programs. It is clear that there are potential solutions to the challenge of how to fund a library-led revolution in workforce retraining.


  1. Encourage entrepreneurialism and job creation

Along with training displaced and underemployed workers for the jobs of the future, libraries are in the best position to recognize that many of these jobs will not be filled but created. While libraries can choose to invest in some ventures and not others, and indeed sequity investment offers another potential funding source for lifelong training programs housed within the library, there is no fear that any individual empowered to become a productive entrepreneur will somehow eventually put the library out of business.

By offering a rigorous curriculum focused on entrepreneurialism and start-up development, as well as by providing physical space in which innovators can cultivate their products and ideas, libraries can lay the foundation for a future defined by social impact based entrepreneurship. The Arizona State University Entrepreneurship Outreach Network serves as a strong model for this approach, with library staff, economic development partners, and university administrators working together to create collaborative workspaces and offer a series of workshops on how to start a business. Combining different sources of expertise and community understanding in this way creates an entrepreneurial environment where patrons are empowered to not just create business solutions for their own profit but to do so in order to address problems facing the local community.

Innovation is increasingly about identifying social problems and coming up with solutions – what place has a better pulse on the challenges of a community than the library?


  1. Train librarians to assist job-seeking individuals with a personalized approach.

While technological platforms are key to guiding individuals along lifelong learning pathways and connecting companies to human capital, specialized librarians will still be needed to develop personalized plans with individuals and assess the needs of the community. Taking a case management style approach, librarians could become specialists in identifying how individuals can leverage previous experiences in transitioning to new careers, collaborate with others from complementary backgrounds to form new ventures, and create career pathways structures that encourage lifelong learning, regardless of temporal job pursuits. Local governments should seek to replicate library training programs like the Maryland State Library System to train librarians in offering workforce development services.Libraries cannot cover all of the training and curricular needs of a large and diverse population. To serve the needs they cannot meet, libraries should be empowered to put out requests for proposals (RFPs) to specialized training providers and redirect WIA/WIOA and Adjustment Assistance Act funding to those with experience in the content, pedagogy, and practices needed. In states like Delaware, Departments of Labor are already categorizing all state libraries as WIOA partners.



The open access that every citizen has to the public library system will ensure that the future economy is defined by inclusive innovation. Given the access to free internet and educational resources that public libraries provide, it makes sense that families in poverty visit the public library more than any other community venue. Instead of reserving retraining and lifelong learning opportunities for those who can afford coding academies, certification programs, or continuing studies degrees, libraries provide an avenue for chipping away at the high income inequality that has bedeviled American society. By creating a seamless pipeline between libraries, companies, and entrepreneurs, this new model of workforce training will prioritize skills over pedigree, leading to economic participation that is no longer reserved only for the upper echelons of society.

As business management expert Peter Drucker has acknowledged, “knowledge is fast becoming the one factor of production, sidelining both capital and labor.” In harnessing this factor of production, what is most important is not cultivating or identifying resources, but navigating an abundance of information and resources to create actionable training opportunities. Economic productivity is no longer seen through the lens of land, capital, and replicable human labor, and our institutions must change to reflect the changing needs of the 21st century economy.

'Lifelong Leveraging of Human Potential: The Role of Public Libraries in Lifelong Workforce Training' have 3 comments

  1. January 19, 2018 @ 9:53 pm Joe Wasylyk

    I live in Alberta, Canada and I am very excited about all the programs going on in Arizona, USA. I am also the Founder of the Seniorpreneur Project that has a focus of 50+ Entrepreneurship. In Canada we have rampant ageism and the primary focus for any entrepreneurship training is on the younger under 40 demographic. The alignment between our community public libraries, economic development departments and universities is definitely not seamless or inclusive. I wanted to know what the entrepreneurial participation rate is in Arizona for the older 50+ potential entrepreneurs? In many jurisdictions in North America the older demographic especially retired professional people eg. retired engineers are ‘put out to pasture’ before their time. These people have the skills, knowledge, wisdom, contacts, resources, etc to innovate and develop new products & services to solve problems in our own communities but are usually not given the opportunities to contribute to our society.


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