When Jobs and Workers Went Hand in Hand

Oct 29, 2012

Many people are looking for work, while at the same time some employers say they can’t find skilled applicants to fill jobs. We’re reporting on the “skills gap” this week in our series, Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted.

The disconnect between jobs and workers is a relatively new phenomenon in Milwaukee. During the city’s manufacturing heyday, from the late 1800s until the 1970s, there were thousands of jobs in the Menomonee Valley alone – and a steady stream of workers to fill them.

Workers at Falk Corporation in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley pose next to a large piece of industrial equipment. The company was established in 1894, and remains in the Valley today.
Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library

Historian John Gurda is author of The Making of Milwaukee. He met Ann-Elise Henzl near the Harley-Davidson Museum in the Valley, to paint a picture of the city’s formative years:


Historian John Gurda says at one time, there were tens of thousands of jobs in the Menomonee Valley. Observers talked about the “bucket brigade,” as workers with their lunch buckets streamed into the Valley in the morning, and out again in the evening. In early years, most of the jobs were unskilled; however, that started to change as technology evolved. From 1870 until World War II the Valley held the greatest concentration of manufacturing in the state. Gurda says a number of big Milwaukee companies got their start in the Valley.


As manufacturers flourished, there was a growing need for workers to fill the jobs that were created. The state sent agents to Europe to recruit for workers. Thousands of people answered the call, leading to a huge influx of immigrants in Milwaukee. Gurda says in the 1920s, Congress passed laws cutting off the flow of unskilled laborers from southern and eastern Europe, amid what he says was a period of xenophobia. As a result, labor agents went to the southern United States and Mexico to recruit workers. Gurda says it was during this period that the Great Migration of African Americans from southern to northern states got underway.

A photo taken in 1934 in the Allis Chalmers Erector Shop. The company was among those that got their start in the Menomonee Valley during Milwaukee's manufacturing heyday.
Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library


Gurda says businesses eager for skilled workers started Milwaukee’s first technical school in 1906. It evolved into what is now Bradley Tech. In 1911, he says the Legislature passed a statute to establish the school that was the forerunner of MATC. Gurda says today, MATC remains the powerhouse of vocational education in the Milwaukee area.


During the city’s industrial heyday, Gurda says manufacturers trained workers, amid fears that employees would take their skills and find a job with higher wages elsewhere. To head off such moves, Harold Falk, the nephew of the founder of Falk Corporation, worked with other employers to agree to standard policies for hours and wages. Gurda says unions organized and fought for higher wages. He says many men who did not finish high school were able to earn family-supporting wages doing factory work.


One generation of a family followed another, into manufacturing work. Gurda says the surest way to get a job was to be referred by a relative who was respected by the employer. He says the phenomenon played out alongside chain migration from Europe, when one family member moved to Milwaukee, followed by another.


Gurda says the ready supply of jobs in the Valley began to dry up in the late 1970s, as the manufacturing industry struggled. He says the recession of 1982 was a real “body blow” to manufacturing nationwide. Milwaukee lost 25 percent of its manufacturing jobs from 1979 to 1983. In turn, Gurda says the educational infrastructure for such positions began to dry up. Apprenticeship programs were abandoned. Children lost the desire to go into manufacturing, because there were so few opportunities.