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So you want to be a civic census taker?

Underemployment can make you do crazy things.

I was laid off from my first post-university job in fall 2012, just days before my birthday. By the following February, still without a solid gig, I was getting more creative about how to scrape together an income.

The City of Calgary is again looking for census takers.

The City of Calgary is again looking for census takers, if you’re lookin’ for a way to pass the time (but maybe read to the end of this blog post before you decide).

When the call for civic census takers came across my desk, I thought it would be the perfect gig for me. Just think! I would get fresh air and exercise while meeting my neighbours and making some decent money.

Plus, I had a lot of free time and a woman can only eat brunch alone so many times before it starts to get sad.

So I signed myself up and prepared to do my civic duty. You could count on me to count you.

To be considered for a census taker position, I had to pass a written test to prove I could read addresses and maps. I wowed them with my ability to use a red pencil to demarcate a census area on a map and so a few weeks later, received a package in the mail along with a training time.

Training was in a nondescript brick building in a remote part of northeast Calgary. Inside, we were photographed under flattering fluorescent lighting for official census taker ID badges to wear around our neck. My photo was so bad I hoped people would refuse to give me their information on the basis that I looked nothing like the blurry rejected Simpsons character on my ID.

Once we were fitted for census-friendly iPads (it was the first year the gadgets were used), we took out our pencils and got to learning.

My job as a census-taker would be the same as the other hundreds of souls contracted. We would have an undisclosed number of dwellings to census. At each dwelling, we would knock on the door and if we were lucky, someone would be home to answer. There were no special questions to ask (like how many cats and dogs they had), so we just went through the basics, like how many adults lived there, how many young children, whether they owned or rented. It was a municipal election year, so we also had to count voters, get the spelling of their names and ask if they wanted a ballot for the separate or public school board.

If nobody knocked, we were to leave behind a friendly note asking they give us a ring when they could.

We were told that emoticons could go a long way in getting people to call us back.

We were told that emoticons could go a long way in getting people to call us back.

I should have known once they started getting cagey with answers that I might want to reconsider the position.

We’d be paid based on each piece of information. A few cents for each voter, preschooler etc. But they wouldn’t give us an idea of how much we would make altogether (this year they’re ballparking it as $400-$600. Last year, pure mystery.).

They said we’d have between 400-600 dwellings each, but couldn’t tell us exactly how many. Surely, 200 dwellings difference is big enough to be worth mentioning? There was also no way to tell how close you were to the end of your census duties. Technical limitations, I suppose, rather than purposeful torture.

They couldn’t give us any inkling as to how long things would take. I didn’t know if I should expect to spent 10 hours a week on this, or 40. Or 50. There were a lot of variables at play here, given that you’re asked to return to a dwelling four times before you consider them unreachable and you don’t know how many dwellings there are.

But hey, I could roll with it.

If it wasn’t clear to me after my first census outing that I ought to quit immediately, it was by the time the snow storms started. It was a wet and chilly April and every day that passed took me further from my goal of finishing and making a few bucks. On the much brighter side, I’d also started a job that had me in a newsroom a few days a week and suddenly income wasn’t such a big deal.

When people answered their doors, it was great. We would chat, they would either answer politely or ask what the hell was the point of the census when nothing ever gets done anyway and sometimes they would offer me a snack.

But mostly, they didn’t answer the door. So I left hundreds of slips at doors and went home with just a few dozen entries in my iPad.

I got to see more of my neighbourhood than expected. I censused at my alderman’s house and a real nice one belonging to a former Calgary Flames star. I met people who were weeks away from their citizenship tests and so were pretty sure they would be able to vote by October.

But two weeks into the 21-day census period, I got a call from headquarters. It went like this.

“Hey Zoey, we’re just calling to check on how the census is going for you. We see here you’re only 8% finished.”

“Excuse me? Did you just say 8%?”




“Oh God.”


“I think I need to quit.”

It’s not an easy thing for me to say, that I need to quit something. I quit a job at Safeway as a teenager after 10 days by surreptitiously leaving a letter of resignation for a manager who probably didn’t know my name. I don’t remember how I quit my job at the Saddledome at 19. I might have just ghosted them like a bad Plenty of Fish date.

But damn, did it feel good.

A few days later, I heard my replacement coming down the hall. She was so efficient that she knocked on my door before noticing that I’d already been enumerated (because I enumerated myself, but nobody else in the building. cha-ching). I thanked her, didn’t offer her a cookie and then she was off again.

Census taking was not for me, not even a little bit. I got paid for what I did (probably a total of less than 12 hours plus anxiety) to the tune of about $140 (including my 2 hours paid training). I think you have to be committed, start early (did I mention I didn’t go to my first door until 5 days into it?), and be efficient with your time. Oh, and have lots of time.

Because somebody’s got to do it.

Filed under: Blog, How-To, Personal

About the Author

Posted by

I am a writer living under a pile of scrap paper and unopened fan mail from the cable company. I believe a messy desk is simply a sign of inspiration waiting to be uncovered. But I’m biased. More from me on Twitter: @zoeywrites


  1. Deb

    Love this post! I went online feeling despair about my census-taker job, and this has reassured me that I’m not alone…


    • I’m sorry to hear it’s not going so great, Deb! It’s definitely not a laid-back, lazy stroll through the neighbourhood kind of job. For me, it felt really good (maybe a dash guilty) to call up the city and tell them it wasn’t working for me anymore. It’s not an option for everyone, but when I weighed the experience with the paycheque and how stressed out it was making me feel, it was an easy decision to make.


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