Economy creates wealth of qualified census takers
Countdown is ticking to 'Census Day' April 1
The U.S. Census-taker who knocks on the door this spring just might have an M.B.A., or even a Ph.D.
Silicon Valley's high jobless rate has created a wealth of talent to staff the 2010 Census, which is now on final countdown to "Census Day" April 1.
By that date, every U.S. resident should have returned the 10-question form received this month.
If one hasn't mailed back the form, one of those ultra-qualified census workers will be knocking on the door.
Jim Kamenelis, a longtime Silicon Valley IT director, is one of those with ample qualifications. An IT manager who was looking for work after a failed startup, Kamenelis was hired by the Census Bureau in the summer of 2008 as the local office manager to help ramp-up to the big count. He expects his job to end this September, he said.
Kamenelis said he has tested about 15,000 local applicants for census jobs, which are on-again-off-again depending on tasks at hand. He has also managed a variety of preparations, such as updating addresses and maps, required for the upcoming count.
"There's an incredible pool of capable people available right now," Kamenelis said.
"It's amazing how many talented people we hire — we have lawyers, business executives, a lot of retired military, and one lady here is a Ph.D. in computer science.
"These are a lot of accomplished folks who, for whatever reason, are unemployed and this is the best thing available to them."
The census jobs are hourly and sporadic, with no benefits. The lowest-level position, office clerk, pays $16.50 an hour and the top position, which Kamenelis holds, pays $37.
The Palo Alto Census Office — its official name even though it's actually located in downtown Mountain View — has 60 people currently working in the office and 70 working in the field, he said.
The biggest hiring surge will come after April 1 when Kamenelis expects to hire as many as 1,000 people. Those workers will personally visit households who have not returned their census forms.
Tracking people down in person nationally costs the government $80 million to $90 million for every 1 percent of people who don't return the forms. The effort is massive, even on a local level, he said.
The Palo Alto Census Office covers about 194 census tracts, with 45 of those considered "hard to count" — including Stanford University, he said. The 194 tracts are in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View and all of San Mateo County.
Kamenelis tries to hire people who live in the census tract where they'll be working. People are more likely to open their doors to a neighbor than to a stranger, the reasoning goes.
"When we look for people we look for them based on where they live, the languages they speak and how well they do on our test, which looks for accuracy and precision," he said.
Kamenelis said he expects to hire 40 or 50 Stanford students to do the work on campus. Bilingual workers are also desired. Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tagalog are among languages spoken by those hired.
Last week, field workers hand-delivered census forms to 2,500 residents who do not have mailing addresses. Most were on the San Mateo County coast in Montara and El Granada, as well as in the wooded community of La Honda, he said.
This week, the workers turned their attention to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, contacting managers and seeking their cooperation for the April 1 count deadline.
"On the night of (March 30) or the morning of the 31st, from midnight to 7 a.m., we mobilize and go to the homeless encampments and we count the folks there," he said.
The workers will approach homeless persons in teams and will be mindful not to wake up campers, he said.
Because homeless persons are transient, the bureau may issue blankets or other identifying markers once someone is counted in a soup kitchen so he or she won't be double-counted elsewhere, he said.
Approximately $436 billion in federal funds for highways, hospitals, schools, roads, nursing homes and more are allocated based on census data.
"There's a huge amount of money in play," he said, emphasizing the importance that every person be counted.
Kamenelis said workers are trained neither to be invasive nor to get inappropriate personal information about anyone.
"We simply want to count," he said.
There is no reporting of persons to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he said.
"We have to be very careful because there's a fear about the census — a fear about the government — and we wrestle with that with everybody.
"We all take an oath and we face five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for disclosing any personal information. We treat it as national security — top secret," he said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.