Learning tech skills from scratch
- By Bryant Jordan
- Jul 17, 2000
To carry out the mission of Census 2000, the government had to raise — and
train — a small army.
The Census Bureau filled the ranks of data-entry workers by tapping
groups largely inexperienced with technology, such as long-term unemployed
people, low-wage earners and immigrants.
"We've had many employees for whom this has been their first work experience...and
probably the most technical training they've had, even though it was fairly
straightforward," said Hank Beebe, the Census 2000 program manager at TRW
Inc., the prime contractor for the bureau's census project.
The workers were drawn largely from the regions around temporary Census
Bureau sites in Baltimore; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Pomona, Calif. A fourth center,
in Jeffersonville, Ind., is the only permanent facility, and it used regular
census employees, according to Cori Asaka, director of training for Troy
Systems Inc., a subcontractor brought in by TRW to train the Indiana instructors
and to train workers at the temporary sites.
"We trained over 10,000 people in less than two months" at the temporary
centers, said Patty Nataro, the Census 2000 project director for Troy. "And
of that number, I'd say about 6,000 were people actually doing [data entry]."
Some temporary workers also operated scanners — character readers that
converted documents into electronic format — a job requiring more technical
Nataro said that many of the workers "were in the welfare-to-work environment.
Many had never worked with a keyboard." To address such challenges, "we
went with basic design," she said. That involved lots of graphics and hands-on
training so the technology "wouldn't scare them," Nataro said.
"We wanted to ensure [that] the materials we used were graphically based
because we did experience problems — not only with [computer] literacy but
with English being a second language," Nataro said. "In Phoenix, we trained
Serbs and Bosnians and others — some people who had entered the country
only six months earlier."
The new employees received classroom training first, during which the
software was demonstrated. Then they used computers to try it themselves,
"It was show and do, show and do," Nataro said. "After that, we went
onto the floor and did it in a practice environment."
This enabled Troy to track the performance of the trainees before putting
them behind a keyboard for "live" data input, she said.
"We set the standards high because we set 98 percent accuracy for our
goal. Everyone had to be able to qualify to that level," Nataro said. This
requirement included 4,800 keystrokes per hour. But the emphasis was on
the quality of the work, not speed, she said.
To further ensure accuracy, Census also called upon community-based organizations
to translate material for immigrants, she said.
"We would teach in English, and the community person would translate" as
needed, Nataro said.