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Columbia-area call center seeking 780 employees to handle national Census phone lines

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Census visit

A Columbia-area call center is looking for 780 people to handle phones for several months as part of the 2020 Census. U.S. Census Bureau/Provided

COLUMBIA — A Columbia-area call center is looking for 780 people to handle phone lines for several months as part of the 2020 Census.

But other Census recruitment efforts have been running behind, particularly in South Carolina. And with record low unemployment in the state, hiring such a large number of temporary employees could prove difficult.

The call center is in Blythewood and is owned by Virginia-based Maximus, which specializes in government-contracted customer service work. The firm picked up the federal contract for the Census after buying out the call center arm of another company, GDIT.

Across the country, Maximus has been charged with hiring more than 8,000 people to man 10 call centers, answering questions for Census-takers nationwide, spokesman Blake Travis said.

"That's going to be a bear of a process," said Cam Varner, president of the Columbia-based temporary workforce company Recruiting Solutions.

Maximus is offering $15.22 an hour for the jobs in Blythewood, which Varner said is on par with similar jobs in the market. But he says the call center operator’s success will be dependent on the strategy it takes in recruiting. The Census ends this summer.

With insurance giants such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina and Aflac, there are already 28 companies with call centers operating in the Columbia-area, according to data from the Central S.C. Alliance economic development group.

Maximus has not been clear on when it will need to be fully staffed, but the information on how to fill out the 2020 Census will begin going out in mid-March, ahead of the official Census Day on April 1.

"That is a very aggressive timeline," Varner said, particularly when providing training to those new hires. "There are so many steps in the employment process. Finding employees is only half the battle."

Maximus has mirrored the Census Bureau in recruiting efforts, emphasizing the job’s flexibility.

“Additionally, they will have the opportunity to be trained as a world-class expert in customer service and could receive bonuses for referrals,” the company said in a statement.

Rather than going after unemployed people looking for work, the Census Bureau targeted people looking to make extra money on evenings and weekends. These workers would go door-to-door to get responses from residents who did not respond to the Census questionnaire online or via phone.

Recruitment still lags behind goals, with the largest gaps being in the Lowcountry and Upstate.

The bureau has only met 38.6 percent of its goal in Spartanburg County and 32.5 percent of its goal in Charleston County. In Richland County, where the call center is located, Census recruitment is at 51.8 percent of its goal.

Census results are important to states as they control congressional districts. Population also counts heavily in distributing billions of dollars in federal aid.

According to the Census website, the purpose of the Census Questionnaire Assistance Operation call centers will be answering questions about specific items on forms, allowing callers to complete an  interview over the telephone and verifying information provided by Census respondents.

When it comes to hiring temporary employees, Varner said it's always hard, especially with 2.4 percent unemployment as of November.

"The employer market has been somewhat slow to respond to the labor market," he said.

While companies have been forced to raise wages somewhat, they haven't relaxed standards or raised benefits to what Varner sees as an appropriate level given the current demand for workers.

Companies like Maximus may also be able to play the temporary nature of jobs to their advantage.

"(Workers) are more likely to take a gamble because the labor market is so strong," Varner said, as they can work temporarily without fear of not being able to find a job after the contract ends.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

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