Job Stimulus: Census Bureau to Hire 1.2 Million

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Allison V. Smith / The New York Times / Redux

Residents apply for U.S. Census jobs at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in Dallas in December 2009

This spring has a hot new job: census worker. The Census Bureau is looking to fill some 1.2 million part-time positions as the government gears up for its once-a-decade count of every person living in the U.S. Most of those openings are for enumerators — people who go door to door to collect information from the roughly 35 million households that won't return their Census forms by mail. Considering the unemployment rate stands at 10% — much higher than in any other Census year since 1940 — prospective workers are turning out in droves. "The numbers who are applying are just phenomenal," says Census director Robert Groves.

For that rare bright spot on the employment front, we can thank the Constitution, which mandates that the government count its residents every 10 years. The Census Bureau isn't allowed to use statistical estimates in its gauge of the population, so if a household doesn't return the 10-question form that's due to arrive in the mail in March, an enumerator will show up in May, June or July to try to get the information in person.

Across the country, local Census offices are taking applications. There's a 28-question test involved in nabbing one of the temporary positions, which pay between $10 and $25 per hour depending on where you live and entail plenty of evening and weekend shifts, since that's when people tend to be at home. Four days of training teach everything from interviewing and personal safety to the history and importance of the Census — it's not only about determining seats in Congress, but also about how to allocate some $400 billion in federal funding.

In this slow economy, the Census has been overwhelmed by both the quantity and quality of applicants. "We're getting a lot of people who are professionals, people who have been laid off from the large companies, people with master's degrees and higher," says Lillie Eng-Hirt, who manages the Census office in Memphis, Tenn. One man was so grateful at being offered work, she relates, that he had the Census employee hiring him in tears after hearing his story of going without a job for so long.

Enthusiasm about the jobs has been so great that the Census pulled plans to advertise them nationally. Last spring, the Census did run ads when it was hiring canvassers for the summer — people who walk up and down every block in the U.S. to verify each address. The Census was hoping to get 700,000 applications in order to fill 200,000 spots. Instead, the bureau received 1.2 million. (Those applicants will be considered for the new positions too.) This time around, says decennial recruiting chief Wendy Button, the Census will run advertisements only in areas where it anticipates having trouble filling positions, such as inner cities, extremely rural areas and neighborhoods with large percentages of non-English-speaking residents.

That targeted recruitment strategy is important, because the Census aims to put enumerators to work in the communities where they live. Part of the rationale is saving on transportation costs, but the bigger reason is to increase the chances that people will be willingly counted. "If people recognize you, they're more apt to open up and deal with you than if you're someone from the outside," says Maxwell Biggs, who manages Census recruiting in Florence, S.C. One of Biggs' challenges: hiring enumerators for two of the state's Native American tribes.

If you're interested in applying for a Census job, the best place to start is online at http://2010.census.gov/2010censusjobs/. There you can download the application and find your local Census office to take the test.