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Summer jobs program at rural library helps students discover career path



Summer jobs program at rural library helps students discover career path

This story is part of a partnership between the Montgomery Advertiser and the Living Democracy program at Auburn University. Now in its 13th year, the program disperses students across rural Alabama to spend 10 weeks learning more about the inner workings of the community and writing about what they observe.

CHATOM − In rural areas, job opportunities for young people can be scarce. Obtaining and maintaining a quality part-time or full-time job over summer break or after school can be challenging.

However, young people are finding ways to gain experience, check out future opportunities and discover career paths at the Washington County Public Library.

The library based in Chatom partners with various organizations to provide job experience for youth from across Washington County. This collaborative effort to offer valuable career readiness training is now paying off.

The need for youth job opportunities was recognized over 20 years ago by Mayor Harold Crouch and the Town Council of Chatom. To provide quality part-time jobs for teens and to help the library staff their summer learning programs, the town began an initiative to sponsor quality summer jobs for high schoolers.

While working at the library, the students learn career readiness skills such as interviewing, resume writing and test prep.

“Summer jobs are rare and are generally limited to retail, babysitting, and yard work, which are great side jobs, but may not offer students as much relevant professional prep for potential career paths,” according to Jessica Ross, director of the WCPL.

“Students in our programs gain a really broad sampling of lots of other experiences, such as customer service, resourceful problem-solving, technology platforms, project planning and management, community service, and even fundraising,” she added.

“For most participants, this is their first real job,” said Ross. “Jobs are designed to accommodate each student’s unique personal situation and offer them an opportunity to learn time management, responsibility, workplace etiquette, and other basic job skills.”

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Seeing the success of the summer jobs sponsored by the town, the library next partnered with the Alabama Career Center to offer a program geared toward workplace development for young adults ages 18-24. This Work-Based Learning program provides participants with full-time jobs for three months.

Ross said this program is proving to be valuable for unemployed or underemployed young people who might be transitioning between college and the workforce. 

The Career Center also recently introduced a similar program that offers high school students the opportunity to work full-time during the summer to build new skills and financial stability for themselves. Beginning in June, students work up to 40 hours per week until they return to school.

These Alabama Career Center programs were used as a model when WCPL and the Community Foundation of South Alabama partnered on a grant to provide high school students with quality part-time jobs after school and during the summer. The CFSA project provides job shadowing for students who receive a stipend to support travel or uniform needs. After completion of the program, students are awarded a $1,000 scholarship.

When I told the library staff that I was interested in becoming a marine biologist, they coordinated a really cool opportunity for me to experience marine biology up close at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab

Braedon Williams

In this program, students work with library staff members to gain basic work skills and are then matched with job shadowing opportunities relevant to fields of interest. Most jobs require experience, and job shadowing can bolster their resumes and set them apart from other candidates in the future.

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“When I told the library staff that I was interested in becoming a marine biologist, they coordinated a really cool opportunity for me to experience marine biology up close at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab,” said Braedon Williams, a current participant. “I went out on a boat excursion with a research team for a couple of hours on the Gulf with current college professors and students at the University of South Alabama and collected water samples.”

The library is the base for yet another opportunity. For students with special or situational needs, organizations such as Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the “I Can Train”program,partner with WCPL to provide part-time jobs that are specifically developed with the needs and abilities of the student participants in mind. Career mentors work one-on-one with students during their time at the library to teach new job skills and instill a work ethic that could be applied at any future place of employment.

Jamie Criswell, a participant in several library youth development programs, said, “I worked at the library for two summers. Following that, I worked in a different professional environment and felt like I had been highly prepared with skills and proper workplace etiquette from working at WCPL.”

A statewide emphasis on workforce development is providing even more momentum for the library, Ross said. “Gov. Ivey has made workforce development a priority during her time in office, and with the help of our local and state elected officials, our library decided to make workforce development initiatives a priority in our community, as well.”

During the pandemic, WCPL renovated its interior to include a new Career Readiness and Small Business Development Center, which now also serves as local offices for the Alabama Career Center, Bishop State Community College, and the Veterans Affairs for Washington County.

This increase in workforce initiatives seems to be working, as indicated in the data from recent 2024 workforce participation reports by the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council (SAWDC). While other neighboring counties’ workforce participation percentages fall somewhere between 35-50 percent, Washington County now boasts a workforce participation rate of 70.6%, well above Alabama’s state rate of 57.4%, and more than double some other nearby rural counties.

SAWDC’s director said she believes that WCPL’s workforce initiatives could be part of the solution. “We are really interested in what’s happening that might be different and unique in Washington County, to produce such increased numbers in workforce participation, and how that could be replicated in other counties,” said Bridget Wilson, director of SAWDC.

Although these library programs began with the goal of increasing job experience for the youth of Washington County, prioritizing workforce development and career readiness could prove useful for any county with limited resources and a passion for community improvement, she added.

“Everything our public library does is an effort to help improve the quality of life for people in our rural community,” Ross said. “These new grants and partnerships that provide career readiness and real-world experiences for our youth are a wonderful addition to our public library’s mission to continually identify and meet the needs of the people we serve.”

Hayley Platt, a Living Democracy student at Auburn University, is living and learning this summer in her hometown of Chatom, Alabama, as a Jean O’Connor Snyder Intern with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. The nonprofit program, coordinated by the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, prepares undergraduate college students for civic life through living-learning experiences in the summer.

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