2010 U.S. Census Counts on CUNY Talent

LaGuardia Community College student
La'Nette McGill qualified as a Census field
operations supervisor in Queens.

Michelle Chin, a senior at Medgar Evers College, is a Brooklynite who spent eight years in the Army and has worked for the city's Human Resources Administration. But her current job - as a supervisor for the 2010 U.S. Census - is giving her even more insight into the people and cultures that populate New York.

Last October, as the result of a partnership between the City University of New York and the U.S. Census, Chin, 29, took a Census employment exam in a Medgar Evers classroom. A month later, after Census officials called her for an interview, she had a job. Chin works as a Census crew leader in Brooklyn, supervising teams of workers who verify addresses and conduct short surveys of residents for the sweeping national count, performed every 10 years, that determines how government funds are distributed, legislative districts are drawn and congressional seats apportioned.

"I love it," Chin said of her second stint with the Census, which has been full time but divided into projects that last an average of two to three months and involve supervising some two dozen people, approving payrolls, assigning and advising crew members. Ten years ago, Chin was herself one of the Census crew members who survey households door-to-door.

This job, she said, "has helped me learn about other cultures. I'm Chinese and Jamaican. It has helped me learn a lot about my own culture." The 29-year-old public administration major, who aspires to international humanitarian work, noted that her Census job has taken her out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods she knows best - Flatbush and Park Slope - and into Canarsie, Mill Basin, Crown Heights and last time around, Sunset Park, where, she noted, she learned about Mexicans and their traditions. "There's only about a three-block difference between the Hispanic community and the Asian community in Sunset Park," she said.

On 17 campuses across the city, CUNY has been providing the U.S. Bureau of the Census with classroom space in which to test thousands of applicants for Census positions, and then to train them for the jobs. Since October 2008, 10,000 New Yorkers - CUNY students, staff and members of the community - have been tested in CUNY classrooms alone, for positions involving address verification, population-counting and door-to-door canvassing, from clerical to supervisory, according to Assistant Regional Census Manager Patricia Valle of the federal agency's midtown Manhattan office.

Last year, the University assigned campus Census "coordinators," many of them career development counselors, to help identify the classroom space for the testing and training when it is needed and recruit students for testing.

Staci Emanuel, the CUNY-wide Census coordinator, said Census officials have "been happy they've been able to have space available to them, because it's a big part of what they do - to bring people in to test and to train." She added that "in terms of employment opportunities, the students have been excited."

Some 3,500 New Yorkers have been hired for the first phase of Census operations - address canvassing - which was to end in June, Valle said. The positions range from clerical to managerial, pay $18 to $19 an hour on average but can range higher, and usually last for several weeks although the workers can be rehired. The workers get no benefits because the jobs are temporary and intermittent, said Valle. But they are paid from the time they leave home for official government business to the time they return home, and are reimbursed for their transportation costs.

It is not known precisely how many CUNY students have been hired for the massive counting operation, because after testing they were not tracked by the Census employment system, according to CUNY and Census officials. But, said Staci Emanuel, "We had a lot of students on the campuses who were interested and their response was strong."

CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson called the CUNY-Census partnership "a win-win-win. It's a win for the Census operation, it's a win for CUNY students and staff, and it's a win for the city and state."

"We're eager to help CUNY students obtain Census employment to help them pay for their education," the vice chancellor explained. "We strongly support an accurate Census count, recognizing how important that is to receiving accurate federal funding for the city and state."

In a city filled with immigrants, CUNY is uniquely positioned to aid the Census. "We have the most diverse student body on earth, with students coming from 205 countries," Hershenson noted. "The talents of this uniquely great public university should be a resource for the entire nation."

Valle said the CUNY-Census arrangement has been invaluable in other ways, as well. The well-advertised Census tests at CUNY sites "made everybody very aware that the Census was coming," she said, adding that students convey that information back to their families and communities.

The official count starts April 1, 2010, for this decennial (every 10 years) Census. Until then, there is much to be done. From October 2008 until April 2009, Census officials administered tests for non-supervisory jobs - clerks, listers, crew leaders and crew leader assistants and recruiting assistants, Valle said. Listers began going from house to house with handheld computers to verify the addresses and distribute confidentiality notices to building occupants. The aim is to produce the most accurate address list possible for the mailing of the Census questionnaires that Americans are asked to fill out and mail in 2010.

The Census jobs have been lasting from two to several weeks, Valle said, with new staffers continually being drawn from the large pool of applicants who took the exams between October 2008 and March. There will be more testing in October of this year to repopulate the list of available workers, Valle said. "When we hire for positions, we factor in geographic location and the work load there, hours of availability and then the score on the test, and we must select from the top down," she said, adding, "We expect our people to work up to 40 hours a week. Students who can do 12 hours and scored 100, they might not get a job."

One CUNY student who ended up with a management position in Queens was La'Nette McGill of LaGuardia Community College, Valle said. McGill "had originally been hired as a recruiting assistant but she took the management test and was promoted to field operations supervisor" in charge of several crew leaders who are themselves supervising teams of listers - the workers who verify addresses. "La'Nette taught the crew leaders, the crew leaders taught the listers and the listers are actually in the field working," said Valle.

Michelle Chin, the Medgar Evers student working as a crew leader in Brooklyn, called the job "a good opportunity. You meet new people you keep in touch with for a lifetime," she noted.

"I wish there was a year-round Census," she added. "I wish there was some way of letting people know it's important to be counted, for the resources to be allocated back into their communities."

The first phase of field operations - the canvassing of addresses - was to end by June 15. The second phase, the hiring of a pool of people to actually perform the count, begins in September. Group living quarters such as nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and dormitories will be identified from Sept. 27 to Oct. 27, Valle said. Census questionnaires will be mailed to residences nationwide in March 2010 and starting April 1, "the day we take the snapshot of America," workers will begin to visit households to personally gather information from those who have not mailed back their surveys.

A decade ago, Valle said, 60 percent of the Census questionnaires were returned. And this year?  "We always expect 100 percent," she said.