by Nooman Merchant
The job market will receive a fleeting jolt next year when the U.S. Census Bureau hires more than one million workers for its 2010 count.
Every 10 years the bureau hires a large number of temporary workers to knock on doors, process data and publicize its once-a-decade headcount. The bureau opened its application process earlier this week and plans to complete hiring by late spring next year. Most will be on the government's payroll for several weeks.
With a weak economy and months of job losses, the Census Bureau has experienced few recruiting bumps. "What we're seeing now is blowing our socks off," said Wendy Button, the decennial recruiting chief for the bureau. "We're seeing a huge response to very little media."
The bureau has already canceled its national advertising campaign for temporary jobs. Most of the jobs will last several weeks and pay between $10 and $20 an hour.
As Census Director Robert Groves put it in a recent interview, "We are, in a strange way, the beneficiary of the recession." The bureau's new employees work harder and finish assignments more quickly than temporary workers hired in the past, he said. The Census hires temporary workers throughout the decade for various projects.
For the 2000 count, when some states' unemployment rates were at historic lows, the Census Bureau had trouble filling positions and ended up raising salaries in some regions to attract applicants.
This year, job losses nationwide have sent a flurry of applicants -- many with advanced degrees and years of professional experience -- to the census. When the bureau hired address canvassers to work this summer, it had to stop taking applications two months early due to overwhelming interest. In Charlotte, N.C., about 40,000 people signed up for a waiting list to take the census' employment test.
Lily Woo said that when she was a recruiter earlier this year for the Census Bureau in Seattle, she met out-of-work real-estate agents, construction workers and lawyers. One man, Ms. Woo said, walked for miles through a January snowstorm to take the test. "It became a little competitive," she said. "It was just very, very challenging for some people, because we've never had so many high-caliber applicants."
The final number of hires will depend on how many U.S. residents return their census forms, which are mailed out early next year. California's census offices plan to hire about 110,000 workers between January and June. In Michigan, which had the nation's highest unemployment rate at 15.3% in September, the Census Bureau plans to hire 23,000.
In some locations, including Indian reservations and some large cities, recruiting is more difficult, especially in places where the bureau needs census takers who speak certain languages.
Economists say the flurry of hiring won't have much effect on the economy as a whole. Temporary employment through the census isn't likely to stimulate real job growth, said Harm Bandholz, an economist with UniCredit Group.
Mr. Bandholz said he figures the biggest impact will be psychological. "Fundamentally, the impact on the economy is rather limited," he said. "Consumer confidence may be lifted a little bit by that, but there is no real hard connection between consumer confidence and consumer spending in the short term."