Shadow factories, shallow skills? An analysis of work organisation in the aircraft industry in the Second World War

Little, Stephen E. and Grieco, Margaret (2011). Shadow factories, shallow skills? An analysis of work organisation in the aircraft industry in the Second World War. Labor History, 52(2) pp. 193–216.



The relationship between design and the determination of social and skill practices has been under-considered within the literature. This paper investigates the relationship between design and skill transmission in the context of the Second World War ‘Shadow Factory’ programme. The Shadow Factory programme formed an integral part of the Second World War re-armament strategy of the British Government. The term came into widespread use to describe both (1) duplicated facilities under the direct control of the parent company and (2) distributed facilities managed by other companies with appropriate skills.

This paper examines the Shadow Factory component of the wartime expansion of manufacturing production in Britain, and its implications for skill formation and gender in the workplace. The paper also explores the extent to which these shadow plants represented a government-sponsored attempt at technology transfer from the automobile industry to the aircraft industry.

The rationale for the advent of this policy was that the introduction of metal fabrication to both aircraft and motor industries had narrowed the difference between them. The managerial skills developed in mass car production were deemed essential to the volumes now required from an aircraft industry that had survived the inter-war period on limited government orders. The shortage of appropriately experienced labour had, during the recovery of the 1930s, prompted the dilution of the proportion of skilled employees and the deskilling of component tasks. In this situation, women were seen as a significant additional source of factory labour. With the advent of preparations for re-armament, this source of labour gained enhanced importance.

The paper charts, in the context of re-armament, the alliance between government and unions on the temporary and crisis character of the widespread employment of women. It also documents the deliberate and open governmental strategy of ‘containing’ the impact of women’s employment by defining it as a discrete and reversible state of affairs appropriate only to a crisis situation.
It is within this context that this paper examines the genesis of the policy decisions relating to the deployment of new manufacturing technology, its impact on work organisation, and the responses of managements, unions and workers.

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