By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; 11:18 AM
For Susan Williams, the road to working as a serial temp for the U.S. Census Bureau ran through law school and a recession that has stalled many a professional career.
After just two years as an associate at a small firm in the District, Williams was laid off in November 2008. She assumed she would land another job within four months. When that didn't happen, her brother mentioned seeing an ad that the Census Bureau was hiring.
In short order, the young lawyer, who had specialized in food and drug law, was a census crew leader, training and supervising 20 other temporary field workers canvassing addresses for the 2010 Census. That $21.50-an-hour job lasted just 10 weeks, but the census called her back for another six-week stint, canvassing group quarters, such as shelters and dormitories. After that ended, she was rehired to recruit other temps for the census. Now, she is working on technology operations in the District's census office.
"I'm still putting out applications for attorney positions," said Williams, 30, whose census job is helping her pay down her student loans. "But right now, I like that it's a steady paycheck. It's nice to get out of the house and have something to do."
The Census Bureau expects to hire at least 700,000 people throughout the spring and summer for part-time jobs that pay between $10 and $25 an hour, mostly to knock on the doors of people who don't send in the census forms that will arrive in mailboxes this month. Many of the expected 3 to 4 million applicants will be like Williams: highly educated, in the prime of their working life, but sidelined by a recession that has driven the unemployment rate to almost 10 percent.
The field of candidates was dramatically different for the 2000 census, which was conducted during a boom with record low unemployment of 4 percent. Competing against the many businesses that had "Now Hiring" signs out front, the Census Bureau spent $9.5 million on "help wanted" ads, sent recruiters to job fairs and boosted wages to record levels.
Still, some offices didn't meet hiring goals, and the census ended up with a temporary work force with an average age in the mid-50s, composed largely of retirees.
"This time around it's a new ballgame," said Wendy Button, a hiring specialist with the Census Bureau. "We're seeing professionals, with advanced degrees, taking temporary jobs part time. It's incredible."
In the Washington region, many churches have offered their fellowship halls as sites for the written test all applicants must take. Throughout the winter, hundreds of job applicants have arrived at many testing sites hours before they open.
Wayne Hatcher, director of the region that includes Virginia and now working on his fourth decennial census, said both the number and the caliber of applicants is noticeably higher this year.
"Sometimes in the past, we were only able to find folks available on a part-time basis," he said. "This time, people are available to work pretty much full time."
The Commerce Department said last month that it expects the temporary spurt of census hiring will probably knock several tenths of a percentage point off the unemployment rate.
The vast majority of the jobs will be what Census Bureau Director Robert Groves has called "tough work," making house calls on nights and weekends to people who fail to return their census forms. Census takers may make as many as six visits to each house, to determine whether the residents have moved away or if they just aren't answering.
Ten years ago, about one in three households did not respond. Groves estimates that every 1 percent of households that don't answer the questionnaire costs taxpayers $85 million to send workers looking for them.
The exact number of census takers needed to make those visits will not become clear until next month, when the forms are due. The Census Bureau estimates that by the end of summer, it will have hired about 4,500 people in the District, 19,000 in Maryland and 22,000 in Virginia. Wages vary, but are $20 an hour in the District and Alexandria, $18.50 in Rockville, $18 in Manassas and $15.50 in Frederick, for example. Most people will put in 17 to 19 hours a week, according to Groves.
Applicants must be at least 18 years old and pass a background check that includes FBI fingerprinting. People convicted of serious felonies are not eligible.
One of the most important factors in hiring is where an applicant lives. The agency favors hiring census takers from the neighborhoods where they will be making house calls, on the rationale that people are more apt to open their door to someone they recognize. In some neighborhoods, language skills are also paramount.
"When we hire, we're hiring local people," Hatcher said. "We like people to generally work within their neighborhood or close to it, so they'll have a certain comfort level and know some of the people in the community."
Valerie Mann is hoping she gets tapped to be a census taker in her District neighborhood, Shepherd Park. An independent business consultant who works out of her home, Mann said her workload is down in the faltering economy, and she has more spare time than she has had in years.
A friend in Baltimore told her about census-taking jobs, and Mann, 57, thought it would be a good way to earn some money, get some exercise and meet people, all while performing a service that will benefit her community.
Being a bit of an overachiever, with a master's degree in public relations and marketing from American University, she took the application test twice, just so she could improve her score from 18 correct questions out of 28, to 24 correct questions. "I knew I could do better," Mann said.
Now she is waiting for a callback, confident that she will stand out among the competition.
"I could be a supervisor," she offered, citing her experience managing as many as 45 people as executive director of three nonprofit organizations with budgets of $5 million and $6 million. "Perhaps those skills would be useful."