By Ryan Pope
Last week I completed my training to become a Quality Control Lister for the US Census Bureau. What this means (in English) is I am now qualified to spot-check and verify address lists already compiled by the Bureau by physically canvassing neighborhoods and entering the appropriate information into my nifty four thousand dollar handheld computer. This may sound simple enough, but as is so often the case, the training I underwent last week turned out to be something of an adventure.
My training took place in the rec room of a family planning/continuing education center and computer lab in Oceanside, and I trained with 22 other people who likewise passed the test to qualify for Census work. The training started with our CL (crew leader) informing us that we were training for Phase One of the Census, (which basically consists of gathering address information for neighborhoods throughout San Diego county) and that we would complete our training by Thursday. Unfortunately, he told us, it was unlikely any of us would be called out into the field because Phase One of the Census was scheduled to be completed by Monday, thus the only way we would put our training to use would be if someone contracted swine flu and called in sick because they couldn’t finish canvassing their assignment area. After receiving this bit of good news, our CL informed us that training would consist of him reading a giant manual to us verbatim, and that this was unavoidable because the Census Bureau wanted to make sure all its staff received the exact same training. Thus we were essentially being paid $16.50 an hour to sit in a room and listen to a written description of how to do something we would never end up doing in the first place.
You would think this would put people at ease during the training session since, in all likelihood, they would never be called upon to perform the tasks being discussed in class. Much to my dismay I found the exact opposite to be the case: several people in my class were practically freaking out and asking question after question about what to do in different situations. For example, we had one ten minute class discussion on what to do if there’s a big scary dog barking in the yard of a house you need to canvass, and what to do if there’s a medium sized dog that isn’t barking but looks like he could be mean sitting in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and what to do if there’s a small sized dog that is yapping aggressively at you in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and what to do if there’s a a small sized dog that isn’t yapping AND a big sized dog that isn’t yapping in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and so on and so forth. Admittedly, some of the concepts being covered were difficult to grasp, like how to determine the proper code for different residences and enter the information properly into the computer (for example, an apartment complex is coded differently than a group of condos), but these people were totally going overboard.
The questions really got out of hand once our CL distributed handheld computers for us to train with. We were supposed to have one HHC (handheld computer) per student, but it just so happened that after we all finished being fingerprinted on the first day, my CL’s Supervisor showed up and whisked away 18 of the devices, leaving us with four for the entire class to share. For some reason I am yet to understand, my CL chose to assign each of these computers to four of the oldest people in the class. Since these septuagenarians can barely use a cell phone, they were totally lost at sea: a group of chimpanzees would’ve been more tech savy than these people. Thus after every single step of the training, one of these geysers would shout, "WAIT, how did you get that!" or "My screen doesn’t look like that, I think my computer’s broken," or "Where’s the ‘on’ button?" They always asked these questions with a certain amount of panic and desperation in their voices, as if they were asking for directions to the exit of a burning building. They were totally tense and stressed out about using the computers before we even got started, and their intuitive skills (in terms of technology) were for shit, thus there wasn’t a single time all four of them were able to follow along and successfully complete the next step without any assistance. As you can imagine, this made for some riveting action for those of us who did not have handheld computers and had to just listen and try to follow along while the greatest generation suffered a nervous breakdown. The thing is, this wasn’t really their fault; they were all nice people who just didn’t feel comfortable with new technology. My point is this was easily predictable and thus could’ve been easily prevented. Unfortunately, once we started trying to guide the four blind mice through the lesson, we couldn’t stop because the Census Bureau training had to be followed verbatim.
As time wore on I started to people watch and observe the other folks in the room. I’ve always found it interesting to observe how group dynamics work, and it didn’t take me long to breakdown our class into three distinct groups. For our training session, all the people in sitting in the front formed group one. They were all the brown nosers and constant participators who dragged our training session on painfully slow with their illogical butt-kissing (who sucks up during training for a job they’ll never be required to perform?) and question asking (in retrospect I should thank them since we were all being paid by the hour). One lady in this group was working particularly hard to let everyone know that she was deeply engrossed in the material and following along, so much so that she’d answer every question our trainers asked us before anyone else had a chance. It didn’t take me long to dub her "the TA."
I sat in the second row with the second group of people. We were the laid-back mildly intrigued people who followed along but weren’t above having side conversations or cracking jokes, or making sarcastic comments about the butt smoochers in the front. I was fortunate to be seated next to two friendly ladies on my left who enjoyed a good laugh, so we kept ourselves entertained by trading quips about the training material, our classmates, and the whole training charade we were being put through. Unfortunately I was considerably less blessed with the person to my right, a middle aged math who hadn’t bathed for a longtime (if ever) with a penchant for eating stinky foods (the first day he had chilly cheese fries for lunch, while on the second day he opted for the healthier option and ate three friend burritos…when I offered him a piece of gum for fear that anymore rank breath might singe my eyebrows and cause irreparable damage to my vision, I was politely rebuffed…he explained to me he didn’t want any sugar-free gum since he didn’t trust artificial sweetners!) and close-talking. Although he really was a nice person, he was constantly confused during our training sessions, so he’d repeatedly lean in close to me to ask me what page we were on, or to see which answer I’d circled in our workbook, or to ask me a question about how to operate the handheld computer. This made for an extremely long day since sitting next to this fellow required me to harnass all of my mental faculties and powers of concentration simply to resist the urge to vomit.
The colleague ot my right really belonged with the third group of people. These were the people in the back row who, by and large were either disinterested or hopelessly confused. This wasn’t really their fault because there was so much talking going between the trainer at the front, the butt kissers and question askers in the first row, the joke tellers and laughers in the middle row, and all the people having side conversations throughout the room, it was practically impossible for the people in the back to follow the lesson and understand what was going on.
This was too bad for the people in the back because they missed some truly hilarious moments. One such event was when our trainer explained that while canvassing a neighborhood, we should always walk to the right. "Whatever you do, don’t turn left!" The Census Bureau gives you this instruction because they want you to make sure you locate and map every single residence; thus they want you to go in one direction, however, you could just as easily choose left as that direction. Anyway, the funny part was the example our trainer gave to demonstrate this actually required you to turn left to walk around an obstruction in the road before continuing to canvass. However our trainer refused to concede this point and instead gave a complicated (and inaccurate) demonstration of how she was able to walk and turn and keep the houses on her right without ever turning left. It was like watching Derek Zoolander make a left turn by spinning in 270 degrees to the right.
However the funniest thing we heard during our training was from our other trainer. While we were all looking at a map together, she was explaining that north will always be marked in the same direction on all maps. Naturally someone in the front row asked a question about this, to which she responded, “I know, it can be confusing. I used to live in New York so it took me awhile to get used to where north is out here since it’s the opposite out there, but just remember, on all maps north will be the same direction.” My colleagues in the second row and I scratched our heads in amazement, did she really just say that? Was she really suggesting that in New York north is a different direction than in California? What, is Canada below the US out there but above it here? We were in stitches. We finally figured out that she was referring to the direction of north in relation to the water (i.e. is the ocean on your left or your right?) but it came out funny.
Other funny moments were the result of reading the training materials verbatim. The best was when we were instructed to identify a vacant mobile home space as a residence if we observed any evidence of “permanent grass or permanent dirt.” Who the hell knows what “permanent dirt” is? Naturally when one of the folks in the front row asked this question, our trainer didn’t have an answer.
However I think my favorite part of the entire training were the acronyms. The US Census Bureau has an acronym for fricking everything. As we got further and further into the training, the number of acronyms grew, and so we started to see sentences like this one, "Remember, during QC canvassing, after performing DBQ on all HU’s and OLQ’s in your AA, DV will begin ASAP. If it does not, immediately contact your CL at HQ." Laughing to myself I imagined using these acronyms on poor unsuspecting residents: "Look, I need to determine if this is an HU or an OLQ for my AA to complete QC for my CL at HQ, so give me the information ASAP you SOB!"
Overall the training went fine. I was very fortunate in the fact that both my trainers and the other trainees were extremely nice people. Still, after reading a lot of Kafka lately, I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of knowingly training to perform a job I would never be called upon to perform. Fortunately I passed the rigorous exam (I missed one question out of thirty, and to be honest, I’m a little upset by this because I can’t figure out which one I could’ve gotten wrong) at the end of training and thus certified as a Quality Control Lister. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will call in sick with swine flu and I’ll be called into duty. We can only hope.