MILWAUKEE – Dorothy Walker's boss called across the factory floor: "Hey, Useless! Come over here."
Walker, the only female welder at the Koehring Co. in 1977, responded to the demeaning nickname and did as he asked. She had determined that this man would not force her to quit the job that supported her family — a job she did well.
Walker was born to sharecropper parents in the Jim Crow South in 1946. Today, she is a top administrator at Milwaukee Area Technical College, one of the institutions trying to help Foxconn Technology Group build a workforce for its huge new manufacturing facility in Racine County.
The company will need people with technical skills to fill a planned 13,000 jobs by the end of 2022. Company officials estimated the average salary of those workers will be $54,000.
Construction on the 20 million square-foot plant is set to begin next year. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called Foxconn's decision to open a plant in Wisconsin "a game-changer."
But for those goals to be realized, the community and the company will need to solve one of Southeast Wisconsin's most stubborn problems: thousands of people desperate for work don't have the skills to do the available jobs. As a result, the poor and unemployed stay that way, and the growth of businesses is stymied.
It's a problem Dorothy Walker solved in her own life, and she has some ideas about how to help others follow in her footsteps.
Growing up on Tennessee farms owned by white men, Walker was the second of seven children. From an early age, she picked cotton from sunrise to sunset.
Although some landowners wanted the children to work long days year-round, Walker's mother — who left school after seventh grade — insisted that Walker and her siblings get an education.
After graduating from high school, Walker joined the Great Migration, coming north among millions of African-Americans seeking family-supporting jobs and equal treatment.
She landed in Chicago in the mid-1960s, then joined her eldest brother in Elkhart, Ind. He had a job at Versail Manufacturing Company, which made RVs. Walker was hired there, too, starting on the assembly line. She soon discovered that the welders were the highest-paid employees in the factory. She started spending her lunch breaks with one of them.
"What do you do over there?" she asked him. "Is it hard to learn that?" He said no and offered to teach her. On their breaks, he showed her how to set up the equipment for welding aluminum door frames, how to listen for the crackling sound that meant she hadn't done it right. The next time a welding job came open, Walker got it.
Now 71, Walker is sad to realize that her daughter's generation has not turned out to be more prosperous than her own.
Changing that trajectory will require cooperation from potential workers, educational institutions and companies, she said. A better future for the city and the people in it also depends on a change in attitude, in Dorothy Walker's view.
Too many people in Generation X and those after them are focused on finding careers they enjoy rather than on which fields hold the most opportunity, she said.
"I didn't choose welding," she said. "Welding was something I learned and then I realized what the opportunities were in welding."