Edna Powell stared out at the four strangers looking back at her, anxiety scrawled across their faces.
“What is a job interview?” she asked, pointing at a PowerPoint slide splashed at a wall across from her.
For the next hour, Powell guided them through the basics of acing a job interview, her presentation just one part of the Queens Library’s broader job search and computer training program.
The Queens Library’s Central Library Job Information Center is the hub for a borough-wide slate of programs, classes and help for the county’s job seekers.
From rudimentary computer classes to mock interviews, the library’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program offers a slate of opportunities for the borough’s paycheck seekers to improve their chances.
BTOP has helped over 48,000 residents since April 2011, totaling 56,000 hours of work for its relatively small staff of volunteers, interns and some paid workers.
But according to BTOP coordinator Tara Lannen-Stanton, it’s the 1,968 computer training classes that have been held since April 2011 that most often help people find solid footing in the modern work force.
“It’s still a really tight job market out there and we don’t do job placement,” she said. “What we give you are the skills you need to find a job and the confidence also to find a job.”
Given the plugged-in world many of us take for granted, it’s jarring to hear Lannen-Stanton describe the number of people roa ing around lacking even basic knowledge of how to use a computer.
“We see many, many people who need to work, want to work but may not necessarily have the skills,” she said. “We see a pretty significant amount of people who have no computer skills whatsoever or maybe they have a little bit. They’ve used it for work, for maybe very specialized purposes. We also see a lot of people who know how to work their smartphone but have no idea how to work a computer.”
The Central Library in Jamaica features a lab with laptops, which allows for learning en masse, led by an instructor. Within its orange-and-white walls, more than 30 participants at a time can get into the nitty gritty of Excel, Microsoft Word or any of the other 38 classes the library holds.
BTOP also goes beyond the Central Library to 10 other locations, including Long Island City, Flushing, Astoria and Corona.
“A lot of people enjoy that individualized, one-on-one assistance with their job search and technology,” Lannen-Stanton said.
Since May 2012, the library has also added the Metrix Learning system, an online program that offers at-home courses that prepare participants for professional certification training and vouchers. The program has 1,800 users so far, with over 18,000 hours of training performed. At the end, participants can bolster the “Skills” section of their resume with actual certifications.
“It’s everything from basic Microsoft Word all the way up to things like project management, really complicated IT things I don’t even pretend to know,” Lannen-Stanton said.
The tech-savvy group at BTOP all have some level of techno-philia, she added. But when it comes to their customers — as they refer to them — demographics and income level do not pan out in a way that labels one group of Queens residents as behind the times.
“When we’re talking about technology, it’s changing so fast that it can be hard for people of any income, any demographic factor to keep up with it,” she said.
Same goes for those seeking employment.
“In terms of your job search, we see everyone from high school dropouts who not only need to get job search help but also need to get their GED to people who have very high levels of education and training and maybe they just need someone to review their resume.”
Chief among the most popular services: mock interviews. For these, Lannen-Stanton said, the applicants run from those in the midst of switching jobs to others on the market for some time.
The strict process includes an appointment, required attire and a copy of the resume. Sometimes the mock interview will feature a familiar face, but often it’s done by a complete stranger.
The “job applicants” are put to the test: They can’t show up late, must come appropriately dressed and bring a full copy of their resumes. The whole process is not reviewed until the mock interview is over.
“It’s all part of making sure people are ready for a professional work environment,” Lannen-Stanton said.
On occasion, a desperate case comes through the doors of the library. Money is tight and a job application should be already on its way to potential employers. In those instances, the Job Center staff will usually help with a resume work sheet and ask the customers to write it out. After a review of the sheet, the customers are told to type out their information.
According to Lannen-Stanton, the staff is strict about not writing out resumes for people. But it does help them.
Which brings us back to Edna Powell and her primer on job interview readiness.
“You have to keep in the back of your head,” she says in a thick Caribbean accent, “They want to know what [you] can do for the company.”
The “intern,” who actually has a masters degree in social work, offers practical advice, ranging from how to dress to holding your jacket on a hot day.
“I love to help the underserved and the marginal,” she said after her presentation, noting she’s been doing the job interview presentation for years.
Occasionally, though not often enough, the members of the Job Center encounter a grateful success story. Lannen-Stanton has no means of tracking who does and doesn’t find a job, so her ability to gauge her success is virtually nil.
But once in a while, a now-employed former customer comes in, sometimes bearing gifts (Powell once distributed chocolates to the entire staff).
And then, the staff at the Job Information desk in the Central Library rings a victory bell.
Yes, the ding-a-ling of a bell in a library seems incongruous. But given the economy, one can empathize with a celebratory bell ringing for someone who has found a job.
To learn more about the Queens Library’s programs, visit queenslibrary.org/jobhelp or call (718) 990-0746.