Published November 6th, 2019 at 11:00 AM
Uncle Sam wants you!
But this call to action is not from the military. Instead, it’s from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is recruiting roughly 500,000 foot soldiers nationwide to help complete next year’s population count.
For the Kansas City area, the bureau estimates it will conservatively need as many as 3,100 temporary workers on both sides of the state line. The jobs will pay as much as $17 an hour (plus mileage reimbursement).
The main job will be as “enumerators” who knock on doors to gather information from households that do not respond via mail, phone or online. Work will be concentrated on nights and weekends to catch people when they are home. Census officials say these positions are great for everyone from college students to retirees.
The bureau kicked off its hiring push a couple weeks ago with an event at a processing center in Phoenix.
Speakers included Timothy Olson, the bureau’s associate director of field operations, who said the agency needs nearly 3 million applicants to provide a deep enough hiring pool for an operation that is expected to run from May through July.
That’s a tough recruiting job given historically low unemployment rates, Olson allowed. Yet, he declared: “We are going to do it. We are absolutely going to do it.”
Olson was buoyed by the success of the first major field operation for the 2020 census, where the bureau hired, trained and deployed thousands of address canvassers to validate addresses to ensure correct mail delivery of census materials. The operation wrapped up in early October.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concurred with Olson’s assessment of the address canvassing operation, yet the congressional watchdog arm continued to raise red flags about the 2020 census in an update released Thursday.
The GAO considers next year’s census at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement, largely because of the bureau’s reliance on technology to help contain the rising cost of the once-a-decade headcount.
Next year’s census is projected to cost $15.6 billion, up from $12.3 billion in 2010.
The census bureau estimates that, through technological efficiencies, it can make due with half as many area census offices as it had in 2010 and can reduce the number of temporary workers by nearly 40% nationwide.
The bureau has two census offices in the Kansas City area, one in Overland Park and the other in Kansas City, North.
According to the GAO, bureau officials believe that mobile technology will allow workers and supervisors to perform their duties out in the field instead of in an office.
For instance, the bureau credited its new BARCA software for reducing the number of workers it needed for the address canvassing by about 75% compared to a decade ago.
BARCA is short for Block Assessment, Research and Classification Application, and it allowed staff to verify many addresses through satellite imagery. That left only about 35% of addresses to be checked in person.
All in all, according to the GAO, the bureau is relying on 52 information technology systems for the 2020 census. Yet as of August, the bureau was at risk of missing testing and development deadlines for nearly one-third of these systems.
These 15 at-risk systems, the report said, “add uncertainty to a highly compressed time frame for completing system development and testing work over the next 7 months.”
Missed hiring milestones also has the GAO raising questions about the bureau’s ability to staff up completely for the peak operations to come.
In a report issued earlier this year, it specifically identified Kansas City as one city experiencing “outreach challenges” in diverse urban areas where language barriers can get in the way of hiring.
At the time, the bureau told the GAO it planned to put an emphasis on foreign-language hiring in the fall. Olson, the census bureau associate director, confirmed at the kick-off event that, as in the past, the bureau will utilize its legal authority to hire non-U.S. citizens legally entitled to work for foreign-language purposes.
The bureau’s difficulty in hiring “partnership specialists” has exposed hiring challenges, the GAO said. Partnership specialists work with outside organizations, including government and the private sector, to encourage participation in the census.
Even after extending its deadline by a couple months, the GAO said the bureau was still nearly 200 specialists short of its hiring goal of approximately 1,500 as of Sept. 1. The bureau cited delays in background checks and greater-than-expected attrition of candidates who left during the onboarding process as contributing factors.
The bureau said it was bringing on more staff to expedite review of background clearance forms and increasing the number of finger-printing locations around the country as a couple ways to address the backlog.
El Centro, a nonprofit serving the Hispanic community in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, has notified its clients of the temporary census jobs, said CEO Irene Caudillo.
Caudillo had not encountered any of the language-barrier difficulties referenced by the GAO. She suspected that some of those difficulties arose among populations that are not as prevalent as Hispanics, such as immigrants from Somalia or Myanmar.
To engender trust, she said, it’s essential that households can identify with canvassers knocking on their doors for information. “It has to be somebody who understands our community,” she said.
At the same time, Caudillo said, the census jobs don’t totally align with El Centro’s emphasis on helping clients find full-time work.
Independence Mayor Eileen Weir also is interested in making sure her constituents know about the census jobs. As a veteran of knocking on doors for election campaigns, Weir was interested in one of the positions for herself.
Yet, she has been unimpressed by the application process.
She filled out a paper application in December and sent it off blindly, after she could not find a definite mailing address. More recently, she applied online, which she found to be easier. And, she received a confirmation of her application.
Given her difficulties with the paper form, Weir wondered if the online process would exclude people without access to computers.
To her, the application process seemed like hurry up and wait. “What really irritates me is when people put out a big appeal for how desperate they are for help, and then there does not seem to be much urgency,” Weir said.
At the kick-off event, Olson preached patience for applicants. Hiring will start to pick up in January.
In addition to the census takers, the two local offices could have as many as 150 other employees combined between supervisors and office staff, said Shane Ousey, an area manager out of the bureau’s Dallas regional office. His territory covers Oklahoma and Kansas.
Given the tight labor market, Ousey said even office jobs that run during the normal work day can be filled by part-timers. “If you’ve got some hours,” he said, “we will pretty much figure out how to put you on staff and get some work out of you.”
He said the search for talent is going to have to happen anytime, anywhere — and it already has.
One of his recruiters working out of Kansas City, Kansas, brought on three men he played dominoes with at a general store in rural part of the state. Ousey himself turned up a trainee from the Oklahoma Panhandle after a conversation with a seatmate on a plane flight.
And Ousey does not plan on slowing down. “If you run into me, you are going to get the pitch from me,” he said. “You never know what is going to work.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205