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ILG Funded Project: Public library digital participation programmes – the impact on employability

This summary, written by Lindsay McKrell, Team Leader for Libraries and Archives, Stirling Council, and Angela Short, Digital Inclusion Officer, describes a recently completed research project, funded by the CILIP ILG bursary scheme, with additional financial support from the Scottish Government.

Public library digital participation programmes – the impact on employability

Work IT is a flexible programme of digital support for employability offered by libraries in libraries, established in response to increased demand for job-related IT assistance.  Staff were being asked for help with setting up a Universal Credit account, making a claim or creating CVs, daunting tasks for those with limited IT skills.  They were keen to help but lacked time and expertise.  It was felt a dedicated Digital Inclusion Officer could offer effective digital support to jobseekers, enhance skills and build confidence in a local library setting.   We applied for funding for an action research programme to investigate this and were awarded a bursary from the Information Literacy Group of CILIP funding a Digital Inclusion Officer for 4 months.  Scottish Government Digital Participation Unit funding allowed us to extend the research period by a further 10 months and the research programme ran from September 2017 – November 2018.  Through partnership working and 1-2-1 support the Officer engaged with a large number of jobseekers, 32 of whom attended four or more times and agreed to participate in the research.  Findings showed participants gained new skills and confidence and after attending the percentage using the internet to find information rose from 22% to 54%.

The role of libraries

Support for employability is offered by a variety of public and third sector agencies in Scotland, each with a different role to play.  Having identified increased demand for help with welfare reform, we felt that libraries could offer something new.  Libraries have always been a trusted, safe space in their communities.  They are present in every local area, offering free PCs and wifi access with friendly, trained staff on hand to help, often beyond office hours.  Because local authorities have a network of library provision, it means a programme can be delivered in all local areas where there is need, subject to capacity.  No other service has that reach.   But capacity was the problem.  We had an awareness of what support would help, who we could work with and where we could signpost people for other services, but we had no staff to co-ordinate a programme or deliver that frontline engagement.  Funding for research allowed us to deliver vital support, to gauge its effectiveness and to establish how it could be improved.  We worked extensively with partners including the CAB and our Council Learning and Employability service.  Our Digital Inclusion Officer worked with eight job clubs and ran Work IT sessions in rural and urban settings.  Over the course of 10 months over 156 drop-in sessions were delivered with 229 attendees.

Our project addressed the problem of overwhelming demand for support with employability in local libraries.  This is likely to increase with the proposed migration from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit – due to start this year and continue until 2023. Half of our libraries are single-staffed and as it can take an hour to sign up to Universal Credit, Community Library Officers were frustrated at being unable to help.  We now have a clear offer of digital employability support, well-advertised with recognisable branding, backed up by a wider programme of IT & Me sessions available in every library which offer an opportunity to develop digital skills further.

We are targeting jobseekers and benefit claimants who need help. Universal Credit claims must be completed online before claimants can receive payment, their commitments agreed with their work coaches must be accepted online, online job search journals must be completed to document work search and applications and CVs must be created and uploaded onto the Universal Credit account.  Many people who attended the sessions had never been online before so find the task intimidating and very isolating.  We have been able to support them through the process and encourage them to return and enhance their skills.  We have also worked with a local refugee group to increase their skills and confidence using the internet.  Members of the group are now able to email support staff where they might have had to travel for a meeting before.  They feel that internet banking will improve their daily lives and value access to electronic resources such as free international newspapers.  We plan to continue this partnership and extend libraries’ work with the families involved.

Impact of our work

We have worked extensively with partners including the CAB and our Council Learning and Employability service.  Our Digital Inclusion Officer worked with eight job clubs, attending Work IT sessions in rural and urban settings.  Over the course of 10 months over 156 drop-in sessions were delivered with 229 attendees.  Among the 32 learners who attended regularly and signed up for our research, weekly internet use increased from 44% to 68%.  57% said they were using the internet to look for and apply for work compared to 41% initially and 54% reported that they now send and receive emails, compared to 28% at the start of the sessions.  Asked what difference the club has made to them, people said, “It has made me more aware of what is out there”, “It has helped me in applying for jobs by email” and “It has helped me a lot because I didn’t even know how to switch a computer on.”  In 27 comments received, 12 respondents used the words “more confident” or “boosted confidence” when talking about the impact attending Work IT had for them.  Seven participants said they valued the chance to mix with others, making friends and talking to people.

The Work IT sessions had an overall positive impact: not only did they digitally include people, they socially included them too, participants overcame the isolation that limited income and reliance on the benefit system can bring.  People’s overall confidence in IT skills and in seeking employment increased.  This is a slow process for many people, particularly those who have been unemployed for a significant amount of time, but this increase cannot be underestimated.  For many a small improvement in skills and confidence can be a huge step forward towards employability.

Staff have been fully engaged, helping customers to access Universal Credit in branches and encouraging people to attend jobclubs and make 1-2-1 appointments with the Digital Inclusion Officer. We did find that numbers at our jobclubs decreased when the large-scale Fair Start employability programme started up in April 2018.  This is supported by Stirling, Clackmannanshire and Falkirk Councils with Scottish Government funding.  The DWP refer to this programme which offers a range of support including IT help.  In recent months we have adapted our offer to focus on bookable 1-2-1 appointments lasting an hour.  People often attend for several of these appointments and participants so far have been engaged and positive about seeking employment.  In November alone, 21 of these appointments took place.  We are now adapting our feedback forms so we can continue the research looking at this new model of delivery.

As a result of our digital support for employability in libraries, a Council Working Group on the Impact of Universal Credit awarded the library service funding which extended the contract of our Digital Inclusion Officer for a year and allowed us additionally to employ a Digital Volunteer Co-ordinator for a year.  Stirling Libraries are proud to have Investing in Volunteers accreditation and are committed to training and supporting all our volunteers.  With increased capacity in the Digital Services Team we are able to increase our volunteer pool for general IT support, including setting up a formal volunteer opportunity for High School pupils with Saltire Award accreditation, and a similar scheme for University students.  It has also allowed us to update our staff skills audit and refresh training for staff and volunteers so both are well-equipped to help the public.

We have taken a research-based approach to demonstrate the impact digital support in libraries can have, and as a result have secured further funding to extend this work.  We are by no means unique in offering IT help and training in general or where employability is concerned, but we set out to investigate if libraries have something special to offer in this area and we believe we have proved that.  People told us they prefer attending their local library which is often close to home, therefore eliminating travel costs.  Libraries are a trusted, welcoming space within communities.  People know help will be given and if this is not possible they will be signposted onto suitable services that can assist.  We have two new mobile libraries coming which will be equipped with high-spec satellites and are fully wifi-enabled.  We plan to build on this research by taking Work IT and IT & Me out to rural areas, so that digital support is available to all and isolated communities will be able to take full advantage of improved internet connectivity when it comes.  Work IT and IT & Me both feature in “Lifelines”, our Libraries Strategy document, outlining service priorities for the next five years.

ResearchWe would like to raise the profile of libraries’ work in this area in general, as many public libraries have extensive digital inclusion programmes which are both popular and effective.  They are not always well-resourced at a challenging time for local authority budgets.

The Council working group which awarded us Growth monies for the two posts last year, in mitigation of Universal Credit, are looking for evidence of impact as they consider the future of these posts and whether further funding can be made available.   We hope to continue the good work.

A full report from the project is available on the ILG website under Research projects.

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