Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who's Counting?

The year was 1990. The place was Grand Forks, North Dakota where I was attending college at the University of North Dakota. My gig as youth hockey coach had just ended with the close of the hockey season. Unlike many places, in Grand Forks they actually paid the youth hockey coaches instead of relying on parents and other adult volunteers. You couldn't make much getting paid $3.35 an hour to run practices, but we did get additional flat fees for coaching teams at certain levels (I think it was $500 for the travelling Bantam C team I coached one year) and you couldn't really complain too much about getting paid anything for doing something you enjoyed. And even though the money was meager, it was something and in college you scrapped for every extra dime you could lay your paws on. So I was looking for a way to replace my coaching revenue stream.

The market for part-time jobs in Grand Forks was brutal. With all the college students in town, the supply of available labor was plentiful, while the demand for workers was scarce. In high school and during the summers home from college, finding a job in the Twin Cities had never been a problem. I think I probably landed most jobs that I applied for and at a minimum, applying would at least lead to a call back and interview. Such was not the case in Grand Forks. Again, there just weren't that many jobs to begin with and those jobs that were available were much sought after. I can't exactly recall how many jobs I tried and failed to get. A couple of notable failures still stand out though.

Despite the fact that I had construction experience and had worked a full summer in hardware sales at now defunct Knox Lumber in Hopkins, I could not find a way to land a job at the Menards in Grand Forks. I applied for several positions at different times, but only merited a first interview once. These were the kind of jobs that anyone with a pulse and no outstanding arrest warrants would be hired for in the Twin Cities. But in Grand Forks, I was deemed unworthy of becoming a Menards associate and being allowed to don the coveted blue apron.

The other brass ring that I failed to grasp would have been my first foray into the world of entertainment and my first opportunity to put my vocal chords to gainful use. Yes, I was this close to becoming a bingo caller. At least I think I was close. After dutifully applying for a position at the legendary Bingo Palace, I was thrilled to be called back for an interview. I think I even wore a dress shirt and tie, so as to demonstrate my desire and commitment to following my calling for calling. But alas, that too was not to be and I was soon shown the door to the cold gray world outside of the Palace walls. Sigh. What might have been?

So there I was in 1990. No part-time job with few prospects on the horizon and even less hope of seeing one through to fruition. You kids probably don't remember, but back in the day there were these things called "newspapers," which had sections called "want ads" where an enterprising young lad could look to find job listings. And that's how I discovered that the U.S. Census Bureau was hiring workers to help conduct the 1990 counting. Hmmm…I thought, I need a job and I can count. Why not throw my hat in the ring?

So I went down to some government office in Grand Forks, filled out an application, and took a test. A test? Yes, like many government jobs (going all the way back to imperial China), the Census used tests to help determine what sort of position you were qualified for. This was beneficial to me since I usually do pretty well on tests. And I must have done quite well on the Census test, because not only did I get a job, I got a job as some sort of manager. I can't recall the specific title anymore, but I was definitely one of the chiefs rather than one of the Indians. Considering that I had absolutely zero managerial experience up to that point, the test must have carried a lot of weight.

I quickly discovered that being a manager carried a certain amount of weight as well, not necessarily the good kind. After being informed that I had been accepted for Census duty, I had to drive down to Fargo for training. After four or six hours of instruction in the ways of the Census, I was handed my own training material and let loose into the world as a bona fide Census manager. In theory at last.

Back in Grand Forks, I was thrust into my role as my first action as manager was to take everything that I had learned in Fargo and pass it on to my new staff. Said staff consisted of about a dozen individuals, evenly mixed between men and women, all older than me, some as old as my parents, some older than that. Considering that I had absolutely zero classroom training experience up to that point, it was a more than a little challenging. But somehow I persevered and got everyone trained up and ready to count. My managerial duties were made easier by the fact that the people working for me were your typical Red River Valley stock: down to earth, honest folks with integrity and a well-honed work ethic. One of the lessons I quickly learned was that when you had good people working for you, managing best usually meant managing least.

For the next three months, I enjoyed one of the best part-time jobs that I ever had. In addition to getting paid the princely sum of six dollars an hour for my labor (most part-time jobs in GF at the time paid at or close to the minimum wage of $3.35/hour), I discovered other benefits of working for Uncle Sam. For instance I reported my own hours and everything that I did that had anything to do with my work could be counted. Attending meetings, driving to meetings, doing paperwork at night, talking on the phone with my boss or my staff, etc. I felt like a lawyer tracking every fifteen minute segment of my time and building up my billable hours. All completely legitimate of course.

And for the first time ever, I learned of something called "expenses." Census work actually required me to drive quite a bit. Although the distances weren't far--remember we're talking Grand Forks here--the miles did add up as I met with my staffers to collect paperwork, hand out assignments, and check progress. Since I was driving a 1970 Pontiac Catalina that got all of about six miles to the gallon at the time, it wasn't like I was making out like a bandit with the mileage expense, but it was nice to get that little extra US Treasury check every pay period.

But like all good things, my Census work all too quickly came to an end. It ended with a whimper, not a bang as the amount of work declined each week as we mopped up the last of the holdouts. The checks got smaller and smaller until at last the government goose stopped laying golden eggs for me. But it had carried me through what otherwise would have been a financial dry spell in the closing months of that year of college and provided an income bridge to get me to my much more arduous full-time summer job as a park superintendant (more on the Herculean labors I performed in that role at a future date). And the muliplier effect of this government provided stimulus on bars and liquor stores in Grand Forks should not be underestimated.

Looking back on the experience now, it's seems ironic that the first job I ever had that provided a high degree of independence and autonomy was government work. While I never have worked for the government since my stint as a Census manager, it did help me to realize that I enjoyed a more unconstrained work environment and lead me to seek similar opportunities since. It also taught me that working for the government could be a good gig if you can get it. Which may not be a bad thing to keep in mind as that seems to be only employment sector where future growth seems all but guaranteed.

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