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Groves Issues Warnings as He Starts Census Job

By Ed O'Keefe

The Census Bureau's new director warned Wednesday of an impending recruitment crisis at his agency and said the world's statistical community needs to rethink how it takes surveys and polls.

Robert M. Groves
U.S. Census Director Robert M. Groves

An estimated 45 percent of Census employees will be eligible for retirement next year, Robert Groves said at his formal swearing-in ceremony at Census headquarters in Suitland.

"We now enjoy a wealth of experience in our senior staff, but it means we face immediate challenges to recruiting their replacements. I’m concerned about this. I need your help on this," he told employees. Groves will seek "every legal way possible" to attract qualified replacement staff and urged older and younger workers to start comparing notes.

"Take a little time to pass on your experience to those that you’re going to leave behind," he urged older employees considering retirement. "Document your work a little more than usual. Tell stories of the key moments of your careers to those young people who work around you."

As for the younger folks, Groves advised, "Seek out those wise elders. Listen to them, ask them about their experiences, learn from them actively. Be proactive on this. Invite them to lunch."

Groves called the current use of standardized sample surveys "increasingly out of sync" with the world's demographics and economy.

For example, he said, current employment statistics do not properly account for jobs created by small businesses that open and shut down quickly or on a temporary basis. Also, "We need new designs" for traditional face-to-face or landline telephone surveys, Groves said, as the world increases its use of cellphones.

Though he repeated what are considered generally agreed-upon sentiments in the statistical community, Groves provided no specific solutions, other than to suggest that the Census Bureau, as the nation's largest statistical agency, should lead international efforts to rethink surveys and polls.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke administered the oath of office to Groves as seven former Census directors and hundreds of bureau employees looked on. Groves is returning for a second tour of duty, having previously served as associate director in the early 1990s and most recently as an occasional adviser to the agency in his role as director of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center.

Groves told reporters after the event that he will devote the next month and most of the fall to 2010 Census preparations. The agency will start hiring more than 1 million temporary workers later this year to help conduct interviews with people who fail to return the 10-question Census form.

Groves also expressed support for congressional debate of a bill to separate the Census Bureau from the Commerce Department, making it an independent agency similar to NASA or the National Science Foundation.

"It’s good to talk about these issues about how to nurture and improve federal statistics," he said with Locke by his side. "Whether this particular proposal is one that has merit is something that is open to fulsome discussion and we ought to have it.”

By Ed O'Keefe  | July 22, 2009; 2:39 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Census  
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