During the 1930s, mechanization of factories contributed to additional employment for semi-skilled workers, and New Deal government programs increased the number of construction jobs. In that decade, significant professional careers were accounting, law and medicine. The Great Depression lasted during most of the 1930s; however, as the country began its slow progress toward economic recovery, retail and service jobs also increased.
For many Americans in the 1930s, working was more of a dream than a reality. The unemployment rate, only 3.2 percent in 1929, rose to 24.9 by 1933 -- more than 12.8 million people were out of work that year. Recovery during the middle of the decade helped, but a second recession wave beginning in 1937 brought the unemployment rate back up to 19 percent. Many Americans fed their families by taking temporary day labor jobs and, when possible, by living off family farms.
Farmers Feeding the Country
Prior to the 1930s, farming was a way of life for thousands of families. In 1929, approximately 10.5 million people worked on farms across the country. However, a three-year drought between 1934 and 1937 devastated the majority of those farms, which were located in the Midwest. Windstorms swept away much of the rich soil rendered dry and dusty from lack of rain, and nothing could grow. According to a History Channel documentary on the Dust Bowl, more than 2.5 million people migrated from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico between 1930 and 1940. Some went to states such as California, where they worked as migrant labor on large farms, but many ended up in large cities, working as semi-skilled labor in manufacturing plants.
Semi-Skilled Workers in Manufacturing
The Great Depression had a staggering impact on manufacturing, especially in particular industries. For instance, the automotive manufacturing industry closed many of its facilities between 1929 and 1933, putting skilled workers, such as welders, out of work. However, jobs came back as the economy improved and the industry reopened existing plants -- while opening new ones as well. At the same time, technology developed, allowing automotive plants to be resuscitated using innovative mass-production equipment.
Mechanization also affected other manufacturing industries. The modern technology had a significant impact on unskilled workers, who never regained their jobs because machines could do much of the unskilled labor necessary to create cars, appliances and other consumer goods. However, semi-skilled workers -- those who were able to learn to operate specialized machinery in manufacturing plants -- increased from 16.4 percent to 21 percent between 1930 and 1940. Many of the new jobs went to workers under the age of 45, who were able to more quickly grasp the new technology.
Service jobs in retail and other sectors such as housekeeping increased during the 1930s, as the wealthy were amongst the first to bounce back economically. For instance, while 1,698,858 people reported that they worked as private housekeepers on the 1930 census, 2,151,002 reported the same occupation on the 1940 census.
Restaurants thrived, especially during the second half of the decade. The number of people working as waiters and bartenders increased from 323,934 in 1930 to 733,250 in 1940 -- an increase of half a million jobs.
Workers in the retail industry originally suffered unemployment as jobs disappeared in the first few years of the decade, then regained their jobs as the economy recovered. In 1929, the industry employed 16.3 percent of workers. One-fourth of those employees had lost their jobs between 1930 and 1933, but by 1940 the retail industry employed 17.2 percent of the workforce. Nearly one third of working women earned their keep as retail clerks and salespersons.
Professional and Skilled Workers
Well-educated people such as doctors, dentists, attorneys and engineers weren’t affected as much by the depression. In 1930, professionals made up 6.1 percent of the workforce; in 1940 they accounted for 6.5 percent. Engineers found plenty of work during the 1930s, as major infrastructure projects such as the Lincoln Tunnel, the Hoover Dam, the freeway system in Los Angeles and the Oakland-Bay Bridge were made possible through government programs and technology.
The jobs of skilled workers fluctuated during the beginning of the decade, but recovered by 1940. People who worked at skilled trades such as plumbing, painting, roofing, and tool-and-die made up 12.9 percent of the workforce in 1930; that number had fallen only slightly by 1940, to 11.7 percent.
- Congressional Research Service: The Labor Market During the Great Depression and the Current Recession
- History Channel: Dust Bowl
- The Cliometric Society: Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s
- United States Census: Comparative Occupation and Industry Statistics 1930 and 1940
- Public Broadcast Service: American Experience: 1930s Engineering
- Photo Credit JaumeOrpinell/iStock/Getty Images
- Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930 General Report on Occupations
- Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940 General Report on Occupations
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