Census workforce more highly educated

A newly hired census worker stands at an information table at the official opening of the East Baltimore Census Office in Baltimore, Md.

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Kai Ryssdal: The White House announced last night President Obama's State of the Union address is set for next Wednesday, that'll be the 27th. Unemployment is one of the many things the president is sure to talk about. And he will probably say that job growth is going to come back sometime this year. If it does happen that way, it'll be thanks in some small part to government hiring.

The Census Bureau needs workers to knock on doors and count every single person in the country. And it turns out that the bad job market has given the census its best crop of door knockers in years. From Washington, Brett Neely reports.


BRETT NEELY: During the 2000 Census, it was tough finding people who would take the job, says Wendy Button. She's in charge of filling the 1.2 million job openings for the 2010 Census. But not so this year.

WENDY BUTTON: Back then in 2000, they were experiencing some of the lowest unemployment rates they had seen in decades, and we are just seeing the opposite.

The bureau doesn't have data yet on the education and experience of its temporary workers. But census offices around the country report a flood of overqualified applicants -- from teachers to lawyers -- who have lost their jobs.

Jared Ewy supervised recruiting at one Census office near Denver.

JARED EWY: The level of competence and the level of education and experience was impressive. As a matter of fact, it gave me a little bit of an inferiority complex, because, you know, I'm hiring people, and people are working for me who, but two years ago, were executives or they ran their own business.

Ewy himself wound up at the Census Bureau a year ago after his own small business got hit by the slowing economy.

EWY: I am that story of the American entrepreneur who woke up in 2008 wondering exactly what had happened to his business.

Most workers the census is hiring this year get $10 to $25 an hour. Much of the work involves knocking on doors, passing out forms, and verifying addresses. Those who are highly skilled are good communicators and can explain why the census matters.

But there's also a knock-on effect in the rest of the labor market, says economist Harry Holzer at Georgetown.

HARRY HOLZER: Of course that bumps out people with even less skills in some of those situations.

Even those people lucky enough to get a census job won't be able to count on it for long. The census wraps up by the end of the year.

In Washington, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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