A battered and idling Island workforce may get some relief in the coming weeks: the 2010 U.S. Census has begun aggressively recruiting census workers for the decennial inventory of the American people. Census officials expect to hire hundreds of Islanders for the house-by-house head count here.

Census workers are responsible for the data used to determine congressional representation. Massachusetts could lose a seat in the House of Representatives because of falling population, so officials say it’s critical that everyone in the commonwealth be counted. (It is illegal not to respond to the census.)

Census data also determines where hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid are directed.

“That money funds programs like first responders, schools, hospitals, libraries . . . There’s a real sense of urgency to get it right,” Barry Appelbaum, the 2010 local census office manager based in Hyannis, said on a visit to the Vineyard on Monday.

On the Island, census workers will face numberless households scattered along nameless byways, at a time of year when roughly half the homes stand empty.

Such is the problem faced by the Hyannis Census Office, which is responsible for counting Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. And the solution? “Ten years ago, there just were not enough people in the community involved” said Mr. Appelbaum. “This is neighbor counting neighbor.”

This grassroots approach to census-taking requires the efforts of the nine recruiters already on the Island, to reach a projected goal of 900 to 1,000 hires. That number, Mr. Appelbaum said, takes into account the percentage of applicants who will back out. But still, that’s a lot of jobs; meanwhile the unemployment rate in Dukes County was at 10.5 per cent in December, or just over 1,000 people.

There are multiple census positions available, with hourly wages ranging between $12 and $19. Mr. Appelbaum noted that people currently collecting unemployment might be able to work part-time as a census worker without losing benefits.

The requirements are minimal: be over 18, be a U.S. Citizen of good character (there is a background check), take a test, commit to four paid days of training, and be willing to work at least 20 and up to 40 hours a week. And those hours, measured from the moment you leave your house to when you come back, are very flexible.

The field work begins in earnest around mid March and finishes up roughly two months later.

Mr. Appelbaum explained that there are two collection methods employed by the census: the mail out, mail back method, which is what is happening in the more densely populated areas on the Cape and in most of the country, and then there is the update-numerate method, where census workers go door to door, face to face, taking tally pen on paper.

It is this second method that is used on the outer Cape, Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands and the Vineyard. “Nobody is getting a form update in these hard to count regions . . . we have 100,000 homes to visit,” he said.

Ten years ago, many of the census workers counting on the Vineyard were recruited from off-Island, and the accuracy of the data collected may have suffered as a result.

The training census workers receive is primarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of collecting accurate data and putting it into the federal system. It certainly does not cover the Vineyard’s seasonal population, undocumented residents and transients, or its labyrinthine system of back roads.

There is not a lot of time to spare, and while the bureau has 10 years of lead time to come up with the most efficient plan of action possible, there is no way to test the efficacy of that plan in advance.

The enormity of the task at hand — to recruit and train hundreds of thousands of census workers as quickly as possible to operate a partly-untested data collection system, with the aim of obtaining an accurate count of everybody living within America’s borders — is matched only by the implications of the outcome: every year, the distribution of 400 billion federal dollars is based on census data.

The essential process is simple. The enumerator, the census worker going door to door — or boat to boat as the case may be here — locates a household, explains the purpose of their visit, asks 10 simple, set questions, and records the response. The enumerator is required to make at least six attempts on a residence before writing it off as uncountable.

Enumerators report their data and follow the direction of crew leaders, who in turn report to field supervisors, who in turn are in direct contact with Mr. Appelbaum’s office in Hyannis. Once the field work is completed, the Hyannis office has until Sept. 1 to compile the data collected, at which point it is handed to the national office. It’s there that the big numbers are crunched, and then on Dec. 31, the final figures are handed to the President, who delivers the count to Congress, the men and women who turn those numbers into legislation.

The 2010 census officials are reaching out through different government, nonprofit, corporate and community organizations in the effort to ensure that all citizens understand what the census is meant to do, how it functions, and that there are jobs available. For example, Mr. Appelbaum’s office is reaching out to the Island’s Brazilian community through church leaders and actively looking for bilingual applicants to make sure that population is properly represented in this year’s count. Census workers already have begun working with the elderly housing communities, the hospital and other group residences.

Though the effort to inform people about the census is wide-ranging, the privacy of the information collected is tightly-guarded. It is against the law for names, addresses, social security numbers or telephone numbers acquired by the census to be disclosed, shared or published in any way. Census data cannot be accessed, let alone used against you, by any government agency or court. And all census bureau employees are required to take an oath of nondisclosure, and violation means a fine of up to $250,000 and/or five years of imprisonment.

You can learn more about the census, and even fill out an application, at the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

Or you may call the bureau office for the Cape and Islands at 774-487-3540, or visit 2010censusjobs.gov.