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Minnesota leaders of the 2020 census are scrambling to find more applicants for thousands of jobs, weeks before hiring is slated to begin.

The U.S. Census Bureau has received only about a third of the 38,000 applications it hopes to have for Minnesota by the end of January. The once-a-decade operation needs those workers primarily to find and count those people who don't fill out their census forms, a crucial task in getting a complete picture of Minnesota's population.

The bureau recently had to boost wages across the state to woo more job seekers amid a tight labor market, in stark contrast to the last census during the Great Recession. In Hennepin County, workers could earn up to $27.50 an hour.

"At some point the census can't … progress if we don't have people to do this work. So to me it's really serious," said state demographer Susan Brower. "Any barriers that are brought about because of a lack of people to do this work is going to have a serious impact on the census overall."

Only seven of the state's 87 counties have surpassed 50% of the bureau's recruitment goal so far, according to the bureau. Thirty-one are below 30%. Most of the counties with the largest need for workers, including Hennepin, Ramsey, St. Louis and Dakota, have reached only about a third of their goal.

Brower said the Census Bureau hopes to hire between 7,500 and 8,000 people in Minnesota, but officials with the bureau declined to confirm that estimate.

"We are, across the state, below where we want to be," Sam Fettig, the bureau's Minnesota partnership coordinator, told a crowd of local government and nonprofit officials working on the census at a meeting in Roseville last week.

"We want to get as many people as we can in the [applicant] pool because it takes time to process background checks, process applications, conduct interviews, make offers," Fettig said. "And we know that not everyone who applies will still end up wanting to do the work — they may have found another job."

Most of the workers will be following up in person with people who have not filled out the form, which will be done primarily online for the first time. That task is particularly important for reaching traditionally hard-to-count communities, such as people who do not speak English fluently.

"We try to hire as locally as possible for those jobs, so that it's neighbors knocking on the door of neighbors. It's faces that are familiar," Fettig said.

The jobs last about six to eight weeks and offer flexible hours, including working at night and on weekends, so people with full-time jobs can participate. The bureau announced last week that it was bumping pay rates across the state, reaching as high as $27.50 per hour in Hennepin County.

Recruiters must contend, however, with the state's 3.2% unemployment rate. In the lead-up to the last census 10 years ago, it was hovering around 7.8%.

"We were pretty much in the depths of one of the deepest recessions we've ever experienced since the Great Depression," said Oriane Casale, interim director of the labor market information office at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

St. Cloud Community Development Director Matt Glaesman, who is working on the census for his city, said recruiting job applicants has been challenging in part because the jobs don't start until the spring. In the 2010 census, some workers started earlier because they were needed to go out to neighborhoods to confirm new housing units. Now a lot of that work is done electronically.

"The [address update] 10 years ago was literally roll out a map that's 7 feet wide by 5 feet tall … and you'd get out a red pencil," Glaesman said. "And you'd draw in, 'OK the new road is here, and the name of that road is this.' "

Jolie Wood, who is leading census outreach efforts for Ramsey County, said it was challenging to promote temporary jobs for $16.50 an hour.

"Now that they have increased the wage to $22 an hour, that's going to help a lot," Wood said. "But now we have very little time."

Like many local governments, Ramsey County has been connecting the bureau with community organizations that can help recruit local workers. Wood said she thinks it is most effective to promote the work as a "side hustle" for people with other jobs.

Duluth-based artist Annmarie Geniusz applied after helping her friend, who is already working on the census, hand out fliers at a Christmas parade. The pay rate in St. Louis County, up to $24 an hour, is significantly higher than clerk jobs she has applied for paying $7 to $15 an hour, she said.

Plus, it's an interesting opportunity.

"You're going to be connecting and talking to people in different places in your own town," Geniusz said. "It seems a bit more like urban exploration to me, so it sounds kind of fun."

The Organization of Liberians in Minnesota hosted a recruiting event at its office in Brooklyn Park this week. Executive Director Georgette Gray said, based on her personal experience, it appears many immigrants don't know about census jobs.

More than 30 people showed up for the event, and organizers heard from others who were watching it online. She is particularly encouraging college students to apply as a summer job.

"A lot of people are signing up from our community," Gray said, "because we are finally getting the message out."

The bureau will begin conducting background checks and making jobs offers in January, with training slated to begin in March. Fettig said in an interview that if the local census office does not recruit enough people, it could mean the work takes longer to complete or people must travel to other areas of the state to help.

"We're committed to getting a complete count," Fettig said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper