Learning tech skills from scratch

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

training.

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,

she said.

"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.

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