Kevin Alston obtained his current job handling cargo at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport after responding to an advertisement in the New York Times newspaper.
Now, six years later, he is trying to find work that pays more, but the job advertisements are no longer in the paper. “You need to look on the computer,” he says.
Mr Alston and his wife, Florenna, who is also looking for a better-paid job, do not have internet access at home – nor do they have e-mail addresses. After a tip from Mrs Alston’s cousin who, like them, lives in New York’s South Bronx district, they came to their local library.
Located next to a 99-cent store and opposite a pawn broker, the sleek, glass-fronted Bronx Library Center is an oasis in one of America’s poorest inner-city districts, clad inside with stylish pale wood and dark leather furniture.
The library’s employment centre has seen attendance surge as people lose their jobs and as others – such as the Alston family – seek better-paying positions, as overtime and other perks are lost. A growing number of US libraries have developed similar specialist services aimed at helping people find jobs. In the past, many of these functions were performed by librarians, but increasingly they are the work of career development and education specialists as expertise is needed to navigate the mass of information available on the internet.
Janice Moore-Smith, who runs the employment division on the fifth floor, would normally see seven “patrons” – as the users of the library are called – every day a year ago. Now she sees 10 or 12 people each shift.
“There are a lot more people now due to the economic downturn,” says Ms Moore-Smith.
New York city’s comptroller said last month that unemployment in the city would soon hit 9.5 per cent – with the largest number out of work for more than 15 years. For black New Yorkers, a large part of the Bronx’s population, the figures are much higher. The jobless rate for all blacks in the city rose to 14.7 per cent in the first quarter, according to analysis by the city’s comptroller, up from 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2008. During the same period, the unemployment rate for white New Yorkers rose to 3.7 per cent from 3 per cent.
Finding a new job is more closely tied to having internet access than ever before. Internet usage statistics illustrate just how different the landscape is now compared with the last time unemployment increased, after the collapse of the dotcom bubble. In 2000, according to the Pew Center, a research group, 46 per cent of American adults used the internet and 5 per cent had high-speed access at home. Last year, 74 per cent of adults used the internet, with nearly 60 per cent having broadband connections in their home.
The collapse in classified advertising in newspapers, as free sites such as Craigslist take over, has led to a financial crisis for many papers, especially local and regional ones, with some of the best-known titles in the US closing down.
Warren Freeman, an unemployed man who lives in Brooklyn with his sister, travels from one end of Manhattan to the other just to use the Bronx library. His local library does not have the employment experts he needs.
Mr Freeman, who was laid off a few months ago from his job as a hotel porter, also does not have internet access at home. “Years ago, you would look in the paper and call the number listed to find out about jobs,” he says. “Now, even when you call a company, they tell you to go to the website and fill in an application online, or they tell you to e-mail your resume.”
With the help of Ms Moore-Smith, he has written a resume and applied for jobs. Last week, he was called back by one of the prospective employers.
With states across the US facing growing pressures to cut budgets, libraries are finding it tougher to maintain services. In the state of Ohio, where unemployment in Cincinati has risen to more than 10 per cent, from 6 per cent a year ago, the library system faces a 30 per cent drop in funding. This is despite an increase in use, especially by the growing numbers of recently unemployed.
New York’s libraries themselves are also under pressure. Staff at the Bronx branch say they are particularly worried that its 9am to 9pm hours would be cut.
“The library is free, and its staff are competent, willing and really committed to helping people find jobs,” says Ms Moore-Smith. “But we need money to do it.”
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