Tuesday – September 02, 2014

 

Dorothy Walker Takes Nontraditional Path to Success

Updated July 2011

Dorothy Walker has lived a life filled with unexpected twists, turns and triumphs. Part of a large family born to Tennessee sharecroppers, she and her siblings spent much of her childhood picking cotton and vegetables with her parents.

Today, she serves as interim dean for Milwaukee Area Technical College's Technical and Applied Sciences Division.

 As a young adult, Walker worked in a variety of jobs, ranging from being a live-in maid to learning on the job for seven years at Versail Manufacturing in Elkhart, Ind.

By the mid-1970s, she was a single parent raising a daughter and a niece. When Versail Manufacturing closed its doors, she moved to Milwaukee, hoping to find a welding job. Jobs were plentiful, but most required blueprint reading, a skill she did not have at the time. Walker and her family ended up on welfare, participating in an early version of the W-2 program. She eventually landed a job at Harley-Davidson as a repair welder. There she learned a new skill -- tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding of aluminum. But she was laid off when those workers went on strike. With the help of Trade Readjustment Allowance (TRA) and welfare training dollars, she began taking welding courses at MATC.

First Big Break
Finally, she caught her first big break while in school. AFL-CIO administrator Nellie Wilson shared a great opportunity with her. Milwaukee's Koehring Company, which manufactured large cranes, had landed a government contract that required them to hire women and minorities. Walker fit both criteria and had basic welding skills, but the job entailed flux core welding and heavy plate welding for which she had no previous training. Buoyed by Wilson's strong encouragement and extra training sessions from MATC welding instructor Warren "Bud" Hahn, Walker took the job despite her reservations about her qualifications.

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Dorothy Walker

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Dorothy Walker programs a welding robot unit for the Welding Technology Associate Degree Program in the 1980s.

By this time, Walker also had her younger sister and her nephew living with her, in addition to her own daughter and niece. "I had four children to support. I never planned to be a welder," Walker said. "But I had learned welding on the job. So when opportunity came, I recognized it and was ready for it. With a good job like that, I figured I could turn things around economically. The driving force to continue in a nontraditional field was to be able to support and care for my kids. It was an opportunity to get a job with good pay and benefits. As a single parent, that was really important to me."

Walker chose to work third shift, hiring someone to watch over the children while they were sleeping. She could be home for them in the mornings before school, and feed them dinner in the evenings. During the day, she'd take more welding classes at MATC and catch a little sleep when possible. She didn't have a car, so she walked to work. Juggling everything was difficult, but caring for her family was Walker's top priority.

She was the first female welder to work at Koehring Company since 1946. During World War II, many women worked in factories and in skilled labor jobs because most of the country's young men were at war. When the men returned home, most women returned to being homemakers or secretaries, teachers and nurses.

"Dorothy the Welder"
"So, I wasn't 'Rosie the riveter,' I was Dorothy the welder," she said with a laugh. The men at Koerhing weren't ready to work with a female welder, especially a black female. "They didn't know how to react to a woman in the workplace," Walker said. "They'd say things they shouldn't, they'd pull tricks on me, hide my tools and my helmet." One nicknamed her "Useless."

"But I grew up in the South being called names because of my color," she said. "So I was used to it. I just focused on what I needed to do. I figured if I could do the job and handle the workload, I deserved to be there." Not all of her co-workers were unwelcoming. One offered to teach her new skills, but only under the cover of secrecy.

About a year into her job at Koehring Company, the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper ran a feature story about Walker being the only female welder at the company. That story, along with a story about her in the MATC Times, opened another unexpected door for her. MATC Associate Dean Milton Boldt, who had met Walker and read both stories, offered her a job at the college teaching women welding in the Non-Traditional Occupations Program. The program was funded with JTPA (Job Partnership Training Act) training funds and was part of the college's Technical and Industrial Division.

"At that time, there were no women instructors in the T & I Division and probably not another female welding instructor in the state," Walker said. With encouragement from her brother and from Marion Medley, MATC director of the Displaced Homemakers Program, she once again seized the opportunity and took the job, despite fears of not having teaching experience.

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Walker dons a welding helmet at the Wisconsin Machine Tool Show held at State Fair Park in October 2009.

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Walker leads a tour of the ECAM (Energy Conservation and Advanced Manufacturing) facility at MATC's Oak Creek Campus.

Best Paying Jobs for Women in Nontraditional Occupations

Walker started with about 20 women in her program the first year, and 15 of them graduated. Koehring Company hired and trained five of the women from the program. "Those women bonded as a group, and I not only taught them welding and job skills but tried to help them through personal problems," Walker said. Many were single mothers, like Walker, and chose welding because it was a good-paying job with benefits. "For the most part, the best-paying jobs for women are in nontraditional areas," she said. "For that reason, I still advocate for women in nontraditional occupations today."

"For the most part, the best-paying jobs for women are in nontraditional areas
For that reason, I still advocate for women in nontraditional occupations today."

Walker continued teaching at MATC until 1994 when she was promoted to the apprenticeship coordinator position. Two years later, she was promoted to assistant dean in the Technology and Applied Sciences division, and eventually she became an associate dean. Walker said her goal always has been to help people, and not only in the classroom. "I thought I help could a broader number of students from assistant and associate dean positions than I could as an instructor," she said. "I could hire faculty who understand our student population and its diversity. They can make sure students have a good experience and get the best education possible. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the success of the students." As of July 2011, she became the interim dean of the division.

"I've had a wonderful 32 years at MATC. I've been an advocate for education and for the technical college system all that time," she said. "I take this very seriously. What we do truly affects students' lives. Wherever you are from, you can build a career through technical colleges."