In my program at the University of Illinois there’s a heavy emphasis on preparing for the library job market. At first this was welcome and was a major reason why I chose this school over the others. Alumni had shared with me their opinion that the reason U of I is so highly ranked is that they excelled at getting their graduates jobs and that was all the argument I needed. I’m in my second semester now and let me tell you the constant harping on standing out to employers is exhausting. I already have a good assistantship, four volunteer positions, summer plans consisting of two conferences and a practicum, tech and research skills, years of library and customer service experience, etc. I’m always networking and I jump on opportunities to get extra certifications. Here’s the thing (and this will be important in a moment): what I’m doing isn’t extraordinary. Everyone I know is working just as hard or harder. Many of them already have advanced degrees or coveted teaching experience.
“Everyone I know” isn’t exactly a scientific sample, and it’s certainly possible that my social group has self-selected for go-getters while all the lazy unqualified people are off being lazy and unqualified somewhere. It’s just my lived experience is not lining up with the message being put out by my program’s faculty and staff, and it’s really not lining up with what I’m hearing from employers.
I work for a large library consortium, and through its members I hear much about how lacking new library school graduates are. About how hard it is to find qualified candidates for open positions. Combine this with the endless articles declaring that Kids These Days are leaving school with no idea how the Real World works, or how to be a good employee, and it’s hard not to get discouraged that school is a waste of time and money and no matter what one does it’ll never be enough to join the Librarian Club. After all, if community colleges in the middle of nowhere that only offer part time positions at $12 an hour can’t get qualified candi… wait a minute.
The truth is that qualified employees cost money, either up front in salaries and benefits or over time in training expenses. Employers, including libraries, have been pushing the cost of training back onto job seekers for years, through increased degree requirements and the staggering number of unpaid internships and volunteer hours necessary to even qualify for entry level. And in competitive markets they can get away with it, but no one’s clamoring to move to West Cornfield, Illinois, so West Cornfield Junior College needs to either increase their salaries or reduce their expectations.
Are there new grads who are “unqualified”? Yeah, probably. It really isn’t possible to learn everything in school, and there are mediocre people in every area of life. But switching up the curriculum or requiring increasingly elaborate demonstrations of soft skills isn’t going to transform a mediocre candidate into a stellar one. Blaming the library schools isn’t going to improve the hiring situation. If you want better candidates, you have to be a better workplace.
Emily is in her second semester of library school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She’s already tired of cover letters and building up her resume, and she’s considering going into chicken farming instead.