With the nation's unemployment at a three-decade low, seasoned corporate recruiters often consider themselves lucky to get one or two good job candidates. The federal government is looking to find 3 million.

That's how many people the U.S. Census Bureau estimates it will need to interview so they can hire 860,000 workers -- including at least 19,000 in the Washington area -- to conduct the national head count next year.

Census officials say they know it will be tough to find enough workers who can pass a math and verbal skills test, survive a criminal background check, read maps well enough to find their way to the nation's 118 million homes and who possess the emotional fortitude to withstand the rejection when doors are slammed in their faces.

To do so, the bureau is boosting pay and turning to part-time workers rather than relying on full-time employees, as they have in the past. But to some employment experts, finding that many skilled and resourceful workers in today's tight labor market -- with the national unemployment rate at 4.2 percent -- is such a big challenge that it's almost funny.

Gordon Silcox, senior vice president of Manchester Inc., a human resource consulting firm, first gasped, then laughed, then grew silent when told of the bureau's ambitious hiring plans. He said the government is probably being over-optimistic if it believes it can end up hiring roughly one out of three candidates it interviews, when private employers frequently find they need to interview four to six to get a single good employee.

"With unemployment so low, where are they going to get the people?" he asked.

For the country, it's a crucial question. Conducted every 10 years by constitutional mandate, the census supplies information used to determine the number of House members elected from the states, which can lead to substantial shifts in political power from one part of the country to another. The findings also determine how much federal aid cities and states receive, and help government officials make decisions about myriad social issues, such as where roads, health care centers and schools will be built and where senior citizen services are needed. Companies, meanwhile, use census data to develop their marketing and expansion plans.

The hiring challenge got bigger in January, when the Supreme Court ruled against the proposed use of statistical sampling to conduct the head count for apportionment purposes, requiring the Census Bureau to do it by the traditional house-by-house method. Bureau officials said the decision will require them to hire 100,000 more workers than they had previously estimated.

Margo Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book "The American Census, a Social History," said another complicating factor is the fact that more adults are employed outside the home than ever before. In previous decades, she said, many more women were homemakers who were available to work on the census for a few weeks.

But Census Bureau officials, interviewed at the department's Suitland headquarters, said they believe they have a good plan. Instead of using full-time workers, as they have in the past, they'll rely more heavily on part-timers. They'll turn to retirees, students, homemakers and federal employees working at other government agencies. And they're paying higher wages.

In 1990, the bureau paid its workers, called enumerators in government parlance, $5.50 to $9 an hour, depending on local prevailing wages; this year, they'll pay about $7 to $18 an hour. The range in the Washington area is about $7 to $16 an hour. In some cases, the Census Bureau will be able to offer more if necessary.

Census officials said they learned in 1990 that low wages resulted in high turnover among workers, which caused them to lose valuable time while they trained new workers. The labor problems, in turn, were among a variety of factors that caused the country's population to be undercounted by an estimated 8.4 million people, while about 4.4 million were double-counted. Minorities and children in particular were disproportionately undercounted, according to critics of the census process.

The Census Bureau will use about 520 local offices to reach out through civic, governmental and community organizations to find workers and alert the general populace about the national head-count effort. They'll even be seeking help from America's pulpits, asking ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders to urge their flocks to participate.

Some regions are expected to be unusually problematic for the census effort. In Vail, Colo., for example, high housing prices have propelled many average-income workers out of the area, leaving a limited labor pool. And in Charlottesville, where the unemployment rate is less than 1 percent, there are hardly any available workers at all.

Don Westfall, an employment security interviewer for the Virginia Employment Commission in Charlottesville, said a lot of jobs in his area "are already going begging."

But some workers elsewhere are heeding the government's call. At a testing site at a Salvation Army community center in Alexandria on a recent sunny Saturday morning, Census Bureau officials prepared for 19 people. Nine people showed up.

The applicants represented a wide cross-section of ages and backgrounds. A high school teacher hobbled in on crutches, bringing one of her students, a graduating senior. The 54-year-old homemaker wife of an officer in the U.S. Marines brought her 19-year-old son. Two sisters in their 30s, both unemployed, came hoping to gain job experience.

Lebanese American Saharr Kublawi, a law-school graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, explained the forms to the group and helped them complete the test. She said she has taken the temporary census job out of patriotism.

"I'm working not for the money but to do something for this wonderful country that gives everybody opportunity," said Kublawi, who moved to the United States four years ago. "I'm proud to be American."

Test-taker Charles Hickman, 43, who works in accounts payable at MCI WorldCom Inc. in Crystal City, said he was attracted by the chance to make some "additional money." But he exited the building shaking his head after taking the test. "I have an MBA degree and I only got 22 out of 28," he said. "I definitely would not consider it an easy test."

But Tamela Kenny, 31, of Alexandria, who has never held a job, said she got 22 out of 28 on her test, and considered it easy. "It was basic, basic stuff," she said.

The Census Bureau plans to hire about 860,000 workers for its 2000 survey -- the highest percentage in many years . . .

Percent of population hired by Census Bureau











. . . and, because of the tight labor force, is paying relatively high wages:

1990 salary range: $5.50-$9

1999 salary range: $7-$18

*Estimate as of yesterday.

**Non-farm production workers.

SOURCES: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau

CAPTION: Recruiting assistant Saharr Kublawi explains forms to Jean Leyman, top left, Betty Graves and Richard Welch as they prepare to be tested. Kublawi, of Lebanese heritage, said she took a temporary census job out of a sense of patriotism: "I'm proud to be American."

CAPTION: Sisters Lydia Kenney, left, and Tamela Kenney examine forms as they prepare to take a math and verbal skills test to be census takers.