How profoundly has Minnesota changed in 10 years? Consider this:

A federal government that was begging for workers to help carry out Census 2000 has thousands of people stepping forward to join the Census 2010 effort.

A federal government that was canvassing high schools for help 10 years ago, and jacking up its pay at the last minute because it was 3,000 workers short, is confident today of locating the 35,000 applicants it's seeking.

So confident, in fact, that hourly pay in some places is not that much more than it was 10 years ago. "A lot of people are in a position to need some work for awhile," said Dennis Johnson, regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau in Kansas City, which is overseeing the effort in Minnesota and other nearby states. "In fact, last spring, when we needed people to go out and check addresses, we toned down our recruiting because so many people were applying." Minnesota's unemployment rate is expected to remain at about 8 percent throughout 2010.

And the feds are finding plenty of cheap temporary places for desks, in a market in which roughly 20 percent of all office space stands silent.

That said, both he and the office managers for districts in Minnesota are stressing that they are still very much in the market for workers. Surpluses in some parts of the state can exist alongside shortages in others, said Gary Van Eyll, who heads the bureau's temporary office in Edina, which covers suburban Hennepin County and all of Carver County.

The need for workers starts climbing in February and March, as census forms go out, then peaks in May and early summer, as the government tries to track down folks who didn't file a form in April. Census Day is April 1.

Statewide, officials say, they are seeking 35,000 applicants and expect to offer jobs to 10,000 of those. Of that smaller number, they expect about 8,000 will actually accept jobs and like the work enough -- or need it enough -- to stick it out for the full term.

With only mild recruitment outreach so far, Johnson said, Minnesota is already about halfway to its goal. The census awareness campaign ramps up this month, with a national media kickoff Monday on the "Today" show and bus tours around the nation, including a stop at St. Paul's Winter Carnival at the end of January.

Pay ranges from less than $10 an hour to as much as $20 in some parts of the state, depending on the position. Ten years ago, pay rates ran from about $8 to $14.

Poor economy helps census

If the census was a chance for a bit of off-hours bonus pay last time, in a market that boasted one of the national's smallest unemployment rates, today it's more like a stimulus package.

"It's a tough economy," Van Eyll said. "We have people here with anywhere from a high school education to master's degrees. We see people who've been laid off. We have students that just have graduated from college that have not found a position through their major, all the way up to retired people that just want some extra income."

The down economy is providing a number of benefits as this process unrolls, census managers say.

"We have been just very pleased with the caliber of candidates and applicants we've been able to recruit so far," said Nan Crary, who's running the Shakopee office, which covers most of southwestern Minnesota out to the borders with South Dakota and Iowa. "I have to think that the state of the economy has assisted us with that."

She, herself a temporary worker, has 20 years of experience in county government in Minnesota, she said. "The management team we have here in this office was all recruited and hired by the K.C. office, and it's superb."

Census managers say it's not their bailiwick, so they can't give exact numbers, but they can only assume that the commercial real estate market has helped when it comes to finding cheap office space.

The Shakopee office, for instance, is located in a shopping center on the edge of town -- "between the Dollar General store and Anytime Fitness," Crary said -- with quick access to Hwy. 169, the artery leading southwest. Shakopee Mayor John Schmitt estimates his town alone has a million square feet of vacant commercial space, so much so that he was not interested when the feds came around offering stimulus money to build new space.

"When we talk 'stimulus packages,'" Van Eyll said, "this is one that goes directly to the people."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023