Manpower Problems and the War Effort


By BRIGADIER GENERAL FRANK J. McSHERRY, Director of Operations, War Manpower Commission

Delivered before the Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., July 7, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 701-704.

EARLY in the spring of 1940 it became evident that labor and industry were going to be called upon for a tremendous effort to prepare our country for war. A that time we had about 500,000 workers in our war industries, whereas England had 4,500,000 and Germany had nearly 12,000,000 workers. The expansion necessitated by our defense program meant the induction of millions of new workers into the defense production lines, as well as the transfer of millions from peacetime occupations to jobs in war industries. At that time the manpower problem was relatively simple in view of the fact that we had 7,500,000 to 8,000,000 unemployed persons, many of whom possessed the skills needed by expanding defense industries.

With the advent of the Pearl Harbor episode, the tempo of the whole defense program changed to one of war. On January 6, the President announced a war production program for 1942 of 60,000 airplanes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns and 8,000,000 tons of shipping and in addition many other items of military equipment. Many officials and other persons thought that the President's program was fantastic and could not be met by American industry. The announcement made by President Roosevelt June 25, 1942, indicates that his program for 1942 will be exceeded in some items and the possibility for full achievement in the other items appears at this time possible of accomplishment. Congress has appropriated more funds for the war effortsince Pearl Harbor than it did in the preceding 17 months. At the present time over $215,000,000,000 has been appropriated for the war effort. More contracts for war material were let in the 90 days following Pearl Harbor than had been let during the preceding 17 months. Of the funds appropriated for the war effort, many billions of dollars have not yet been obligated by contracts. The above action of the President, Congress, and procurement agencies necessitates a complete reorientation of the policies, methods, and procedures governing manpower problems.

It is reliably estimated that at least ten and a half million additional workers must be added to the war industries during 1942 if the President's program is to be accomplished. In addition to the ten and a half million workers needed for industry, 3,400,000 men will be withdrawn from the labor market during this calendar year for the military services. In other words, over 13,900,000 persons must be inducted into the war activities during 1942.

In order that we may properly place the importance of manpower in our war effort, let us project our labor requirements into 1943. While we do not know precisely what the war production program will be at that time, it is estimated that we will need over 2,500,000 additional workers in war industries during the coming year. The exact increase in the military forces being unknown, it may be assumed that the increase will be at least 3,500,000. We face, therefore, a combined total increase in war production work and in armed forces, of approximately six million people in 1943. This makes a grand total of 19,900,000 persons to be inducted into war activities during 1942 and 1943.

It is estimated that the total increase of 13,900,000 persons to be inducted into war activities during 1942 will come from the following sources: conversion from non-defense production and services to war employment, 8,600,000; reduction in unemployment, 1,400,000; reduction in agricultural employment, 400,000—and an over-all increase in our active labor forces of 3,300,000. This source of persons coming into the labor forces for the first time will be from women who have never worked except in their own homes and young people just reaching working ages.

To secure the necessary workers and the anticipated increase in the armed forces for 1943 will necessitate additional conversions of workers from non-war industries, and the addition of approximately 3,600,000 persons in the active labor market who are not ordinarily included in the working forces. This latter group will be principally women. Mobilizing 6,900,000 new workers needed in 1942 and 1943 will constitute one of the main tasks of the War Manpower Commission. Fully aware of this serious problem, we are now actively engaged in making plans to ensure the most effective utilization of our total labor supply in order that we can advance our war effort.

Let us consider what we had in the way of manpower and its distribution. At the turn of the year we had a population of 133,100,000 with 102,500,000 over the age of 14. Of the group over 14, 2,000,000 were in the military services at the beginning of 1942 and 53,400,000 were in the active labor market. 47,100,000 of the group over 14 were not in our labor force, but were engaged as follows: 9,000,000 in school, 29,300,000 engaged in own housework, and the balance aged and unemployable. It is quite obvious that we have an ample supply of potential workers if we can bring them into our active labor force.

Faced as we are by this staggering problem of providing 13,900,000 additional persons for war industries and the armed forces in 1942, and another six million in 1943, we must plan the utilization of our manpower and the effectiveallocation as carefully as we are budgeting the use of our vital materials such as copper, steel, and aluminum. To accomplish this intelligent utilization of our manpower, some of the problems which we must solve are as follows:

We must definitely change many of our employment concepts to make it possible to draw the 13,900,000 new workers who will be needed during the course of 1942. Employers can no longer afford to set arbitrary age limits; they must consider using men over 45 for semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, as well as for skilled positions.

Employers must appreciate the value of women in skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled occupations. It has been conclusively proven by the war experience in England, and in this country, that women are at least as efficient as men in light-skilled and semi-skilled jobs and more efficient in many others. Approximately two million of the additional jobs in war industries this year must be filled by women and possibly an even greater number during 1943.

Employers can no longer afford to discriminate against Negroes and workers of other minority groups. According to the best figures available, there are approximately a million able-bodied, well-equipped Negro workers available throughout the country who can be inducted into war production jobs with only a minimum of pre-employment training.

Aliens, where it is possible under government restrictions, must be considered for war production jobs and certainly must be utilized to replace workers who can take war production jobs in civilian occupations. We cannot afford to permit any preconceived prejudices or artificial hiring standards to interfere with the production of tanks, planes and guns.

In other words, it is up to employers to face this situation squarely and to cooperate 100 per cent with the War Manpower Commission in the full utilization of local labor supply. Only by this utilization of local labor supply will it be possible for us to meet our long-run manpower problem. Although some in-migration of workers will be necessary in certain communities to meet our war production needs, this in-migration must be held to a minimum in order that new housing projects can be permitted in those areas where they are absolutely essential.

An important problem now being constructively faced by the War Manpower Commission is that of developing a clear allocation of manpower between the military, industrial, and agricultural needs. Representatives of the Selective Service System are functioning on the staff of the War Manpower Commission, and the requirements of the military services are closely meshed with the needs of war industries in the planning of any recruitment and labor mobilization programs.

To win the war we must not only produce the implements of war and use them in the field, but we must also produce the food necessary for maintaining our civilian and armed forces. Increasing difficulty in securing sufficient farm labor goes hand in hand with the shortage of labor in other categories. To cope with this problem the War Manpower Commission works closely with the Office of Agricultural Defense Relations in arranging for satisfactory provision of manpower for the planting and harvesting of America's crops.

At the beginning of the defense effort the manpower factor, as such, had little weight in determining the placement of war contracts or the location of new plants because there were large numbers of unemployed workers in most industrial centers. Later on, some of the original contracts were greatly increased and existing plants expanded. As aresult, there has been a concentration of war contracts in certain industrial areas which have definitely created serious manpower shortgages. A study of this problem shows the maldistribution of contracts has created or will create a definite shortage of manpower in certain areas, while in other areas there is a surplus supply of manpower much greater than the anticipated hires incident to the contracts already placed in those areas. In certain areas, such as Hartford and Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Wichita, Kansas; Seattle, Washington, and San Diego, California, there is now a shortage of manpower. In other places such as New York City we have large pools of unused manpower. Steps have been, and are being, taken to correct this situation.

Another immediate concern relating to the mobilizing of our manpower is the establishment of a labor inventory for the United States. The occupational questionnaire sent out by the Selective Service System provides the basic data for such an inventory. This inventory must include information on the present occupation and location of all skilled workers in order that we may plan for the most effective utilization of these workers. As the labor market becomes even tighter, it will be necessary for us to arrange for a complete inventory of available women workers. The United States Employment Service is already taking steps to cope with the first problem by means of classifying the occupational questionnaires which were recently issued by the Selective Service System. The time has not come as yet for universal registration of women, but when it does, it will be taken care of by the War Manpower Commission.

As far as the manpower itself is concerned from the national viewpoint, we have an ample supply for this year if we use our entire available supply without discriminatorypractices. However, it is quite obvious that we cannot produce the complicated equipment needed by our military services without an adequate supply of skilled and semi-skilled workers. When we consider that in 1938 the aircraft industry had only 23,000 workers and today it has approximately 700,000, it is quite obvious that there are no available skilled aircraft workers unemployed. We must expand this industry to a total of 1,000,000 workers by the end of this year and a further expansion to 1,500,000 workers by the middle of 1943. Similarly the shipbuilding industry which had 60,000 workers in the middle of 1939 has now 688,000 and it is estimated by the end of the year that there will be a total of 950,000 persons employed in this industry. Probably the largest expansion in a single war industry is that of the ordnance and munitions industry. In the middle of 1940 we had a total of some 66,000 employed in this industry. By the end of this year it is estimated that there will be a total of 3,000,000 employed in this industry. In these three industries 3,500,000 additional workers will be needed during the current year and of this number 32 per cent must be skilled and 44 per cent semi-skilled. The problem of providing a sufficient number of skilled workers for war industries is one of the most serious which we are facing at this time.

It is a well-known fact that in certain occupations there are no available unemployed workers at the present time. A few examples of a survey made by the Federal Employment Service in January graphically indicates the ratio of reported demand to visible supply for workers skilled in certain critical occupations listed below:

Occupation Ratio of Demand to Supply

Tool designers


Tool makers


Marine machinists


Boring mill operators


Fire arm assemblers


Detail assemblers


 Ship carpenters


Ship electricians



To meet this great demand for workers in skilled occupations, a limited number may be obtained from so-called nonessential industries. However, the continued operation of these industries in many cases is necessary to provide the needs of our civilian population, as well as to provide certain items of necessity for our allies. To obtain workers from such industries is most difficult at the present time due to the reluctance of the individual worker to give up his present employment. On the other hand, the managers of these so-called less essential industries are also reluctant to give up skilled workers whom they have trained at considerable expense in the years past and to assume the additional expense incident to training men workers to replace the ones transferred.

Contrary to the general belief, the conversion of an industrial plant from non-defense to war production does not release toolmakers and machinists for other industries, but actually creates a demand for a greater number of additional tool, die and jig makers. Obviously, in the conversion of a civilian production plant to a war industry, additional machine tools, jigs and fixtures are needed. These must be manufactured before the production workers can be re-employed and, in many cases, before they can be retrained for war work. To speed up the conversion process, additional toolmakers are absolutely essential.

One of the most serious problems interfering with the pace of our war production program is the large amount ofturnover caused by labor pirating. Employers, in an effort to secure skilled workers, are indiscriminately increasing wages for certain types of occupations and are offering various other inducements in the hope that they may attract skilled workers from other industries. The adverse inflationary effect of this indiscriminate bargaining for workers should be readily apparent. The loss in production time resulting from the useless transfer of workers is serious and the loss of efficiency caused by the additional training necessitated by this practice, although not as evident, is just as serious. Because of the many new plants which have been required to go through the "tooling up" process during the past six months and therefore are badly in need of skilled workers, pirating has increased rapidly since the first of the year. It is quite obvious that the over-all supply of skilled workers is not increased by such methods. For example, a company making gauges for airplane engines in Detroit lost fifty toolmakers at one time to another company which was making the same article. The second company offered a $.30 per hour increase in wages. Due to the loss of time of the workers and the time necessary for readjustment, the total output in this transaction was less than if those workers had remained with the original company. We definitely need the help of groups such as yours to convince employers generally that the pirating of labor is detrimental to the country's war effort as well as for labor and employers themselves. If we can convince employers that this practice is bad, much of the wasteful labor migration will be stopped. Only by the voluntary acceptance by the parties concerned of a standardized procedure for securing skilled workers, or through the establishment of a single hiring agency such as the United States Employment Service, will it be possible to prevent this inefficient movement of workers.

The most practical way to meet the need for skills necessary for the war program with the limited supply of skilledworkers is to utilize all craftsmen at their best skill and upgrade other workers to take over the operations, normally performed by the skilled craftsmen, which require less skill, For example, a good machinist may be upgraded to become a junior toolmaker; a machine operator may take over the work that a machinist does on a lathe; another machine operator may take over the work that a machinist does on a milling machine, and so on until practically the entire work that a machinist does may be performed by machine operators. Further, machine operators may be upgraded to become machine hands on one or several machines. Such upgrading and training has been done in many plants. As a matter of fact, in some of our larger industrial plants toolmakers are utilized as supervisors and instructors only, and machine hands and machine operators actually do the work necessary to produce the jigs and fixtures being manufactured. On the other hand, there are still many machine tool shops which have not done a satisfactory upgrading job and are utilizing toolmakers as machine operators for a large part of the day. To meet our skilled labor problem, all industrial plants must establish upgrading programs to meet their requirements for skilled workers.

It should be readily apparent, therefore, that upgrading programs must be widely extended if we are to secure a sufficient supply of skilled and semi-skilled workers. It cannot be stressed too much that all plants engaged in war production must install and execute upgrading programs to meet their needs for additional skilled and semi-skilled workers.

In addition to the direct problems of recruiting, training, transferring, placing, and upgrading workers for war industries, a number of closely related problems must be faced. The geographic transfer and migration of labor, which is absolutely necessary to man the new war plants, brings with it enormous problems of housing. The War Manpower Commission is definitely concerned with this problem and works closely with the designated Federal Housing Agencies in order that satisfactory provisions may be made for new groups of workers. Transportation to and from a factory, as well as between geographic areas, likewise ties in closely with manpower considerations. Again, the War Manpower Commission has developed close relationships with the Office of Defense Transportation in order that special transportation needs may be anticipated and planned for.

Government agencies, management, and labor must join hands in an aggressive effort to cope with these problems have just outlined for you. Whether we meet these problems efficiently and rapidly will constitute a real test of the possibilities for cooperation in our country.

As far as the War Manpower Commission is concerned, we hope to enlist the kind of cooperation which is needed through local joint committees in which all three groups, labor, management and the government, will act. These local committees will be the agencies through which we hope to work out broad-scale community manpower planning, and also to settle such problems as that of developing more effective relationships between the Selective Service local boards and the United States Employment Service.

The final point that I would like you to carry away with you is this: America is using democratic methods to mobilize its combat forces and its "production soldiers." It is an enormous task of cooperation and willingness to adjust our usual patterns to meet the emergency needs. We are convinced that this cooperation will be forthcoming, that we can do the job and remain a free people. That is where we differ from the Japs and the Nazis. It is up to us to prove that we can maintain this difference and still get the job done.