Checking out jobs: Chattanooga Public Library resources could aid vocational training

Checking out jobs: Chattanooga Public Library resources could aid vocational training

February 23rd, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Alex Nelson, who makes jewelry, uses a 3rd floor studio at the Chattanooga Public Library to photograph her work and help promote her business on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. City council members recently toured the library and foresee opportunities to use the facility's technology services for vocational training.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Library resources could aid job training

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Sitting hunched over a square table scattered with tools and drawings in a cavernous room, Malcolm Robinson focuses intently on the stencil he's creating, a T-shirt design for a mom-and-pop business.

A few feet away at another table, budding music promoter Gurukrisna switches between two computer screens, where he's working on social media and fliers to book NBA YoungBoy, the "hottest rapper on the streets," he said, to perform in Chattanooga.

At a desk against one wall, Rebecca Lefkoff creates a pirate ship on another computer and then pulls the giant image off a 30-inch vinyl plotter. She'll put the ship on a wall outside her sixth-grade classroom at Heritage Middle School in Catoosa County, Ga.

And in a darkened corner, Alex Nelson trains a spotlight on a display of her handmade copper jewelry, taking photos of necklaces and earrings she'll display and sell on her website.

Though there's not a book in sight, this is Chattanooga's public library.

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Just by getting library cards, the four have full access to the supplies and equipment in the fourth-floor "maker space" to grow their infant businesses or use their creativity.

"I'm in the startup phase of my business. We don't even have a budget; this is the only way I can do this," Gurukrisna said.

"It's different from the library I used to roam in," said Robinson, who grew up in Chattanooga. "It's somewhere you can come and learn if there's something you're interested in."

Nelson said she only started coming to the library for her photographs a few weeks ago.

"I can't believe I waited this long to come up here," she said.

Lefkoff said she's "here all summer" when school is out, creating images to engage her students, Last summer, she used the vinyl plotter to craft a huge solar image for the Great American Eclipse.

"It's amazing. It's something we don't have access to anywhere else," Lefkoff said.

Chattanooga City Council members, who recently toured the maker space as well as the new music production studio on the second floor and a space that could house a commercial kitchen, came away inspired with the possibilities for training and entrepreneurship.

And they found a ready partner in library director Corinne Hill, who said the library's 2017-2020 strategic plan refers to how to better let the public know about its resources.

"My job is to make certain the services we deliver are the services the community wants or needs," Hill said. In her six-year tenure, she has broadened the library's focus and worked to attract younger, tech-savvy users who come for enjoyment or to get started in small businesses.

"We're the front door to the startup — 'Come on in, we'll get you some skills' — but we're a place to launch from," she said, to the Enterprise Center or other places where a fledgling enterprise can get time, space and support to develop.

Council members spent part of their strategic planning session last week spinning out possibilities. They see realistic job training and the power to earn money as one way to help keep at-risk youth away from drugs and gang violence.

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The council last month refused to approve the Berke administration's proposed $600,000 contract with a local nonprofit for social services, including job placement and training, for gang members who want to get out of the life. Several said if the city is serious about combating gangs, it will need to spend more money on a communitywide effort.

Councilman Russell Gilbert said Monday he believes the council and the administration are "going to put together something that's going to be workable" under the mayor's Violence Reduction Initiative. He believes part of that is enlisting partners who can teach both skills and life lessons.

"I want people with a passion to make it happen," he said. "There's a lot of people doing something, we've just got to get together and figure out what we can start and go from there."

During last week's meeting, Councilman Anthony Byrd said a lot of people in the community don't know anything about the library or what it has to offer. Perhaps the library should promote and hold a family day, with activities that will introduce moms, dads and kids to the library and sign them up for cards, Byrd suggested.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod warned, though, that it's important to recognize culture and learning style, too — young people who've grown up with smartphones aren't going to be looking to books, she said, so the technology they prefer must be available and they have to be ready and willing to learn.

Gilbert works in food service and sees an enormous need for people who know their way around a commercial kitchen as well as "soft skills" of showing up for work on time, dressing correctly and exhibiting proper demeanor.

During the council's library tour, Hill showed them the space on the north end of the second floor where she envisions a commercial kitchen that could be used for library events as well as training.

"This is something the staff and library board have considered for some time but it would have to be built," she said.

Councilman Ken Smith suggested tapping Hill's knowledge of the library's programs and resources and looking at the idea of city-funded job training using local teachers.

Councilwoman Carol Berz added, "Vocational [training] doesn't seem to be happening at the places where my colleagues want it to be happening."

There are places where it is happening that shouldn't be overlooked, Chairman Jerry Mitchell said, such as union halls. He named Coonrod, Gilbert and Councilman Erskine Oglesby Jr. to look further into the idea of partnerships with the library and others.

Oglesby said the group needs to decide quickly what city department could foster any initiative that might develop.

"The money's going to have to come out of somebody's pot," he said.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.

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