Educating engineers

Photograph showing apprentice engineers and their tutor [IMechE Archive IME/13/5/1/12]

Educating engineers during the Second World War

The December 1940 edition of the IMechE journal outlined the importance of continuing the education and development of engineers despite the circumstances:

“During the last war there was a break in the studies of a whole generation of engineers with serious consequences to the profession; many on attempting to rejoin it had difficulty resuming their studies and in passing examinations, and were consequently handicapped in obtaining employment. The Council will regard it as an immense benefit  if this experience could be avoided in the present war and consider that the provision of courses of engineering courses of engineering study will not only provide useful mental occupation, especially during the winter months, should the conditions of the war allow a measure of study, but would also help those whose engineering training had been interrupted by the war to keep in touch with technical knowledge and perhaps in some cases to complete a portion of their engineering qualifications while still serving.”

Considerable thought and effort went into ensuring that the country’s engineering and technical workforce was balanced between the competing requirements of expertise needed at home and expertise for the armed forces. This was achieved via several different means, some of which are outlined below.

The Central Register, National Service and Reserved Occupations

In September 1938 the IMechE requested that Members provide information relating to their availability for National Service in response to a government scheme for the supply of technical personnel for the armed forces, for Government and for industry.

The IMechE provided a copy of the Register of Corporate Members (which consisted of qualified engineers who had achieved the membership class of Member or Associate Member) and Register of Graduates who were available for National Service to the government. In total the register comprised of 6000 names, or 55% of those who were available for inclusion. Many of the remainder of names would have already been engaged in work that contributed to the war effort and would not have been eligible for conscription.

This government scheme became the Central Register, a list of professionals and their area of expertise, which was maintained to allow suitable individuals to be recommended when vacancies arose.  

“The Central Register had but one aim: to ensure that the war effort was not being hampered or delayed, or robbed of efficiency by lack of technical man-power, whether in quantity or quality.”

By March 1942 the Mechanical Engineering section of the Central Register (which included mechanical [general], production, chemical, automobile, marine, aeronautical, locomotive, and mining engineering, heating and ventilation, gas, metallurgy, and naval architecture) consisted of some 65,000 names who had satisfied the professional standards.

An additional factor that required consideration was the threat of unemployment of engineers at home due to enemy action damaging places of employment. If these circumstances were to arise Members were advised to inform the IMechE as soon as possible so that they could be forward for posts via the Ministry of Labour’s Central Register.

It was the role of the Ministry of Labour and National Service to allocate people to work between the armed forces, civil defence and industry. At the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 was enacted which enforced full conscription on all males between 18 and 41 who were resident in the UK. Initially most qualified engineers were included in the Schedule of Reserved Occupations and so were ineligible for National Service.

In 1940 student engineer apprentices (those studying on part time courses alongside practical training in a workshop) were added to the Schedule of Reserved Occupations preventing them from being conscripted into the armed forces. This allowed those who were already enrolled in an apprenticeship to complete their education prior to being called up. The purpose of this addition was to avoid disrupting the qualification of those who had already embarked upon their engineering training.

School leavers

From 1940 the IMechE were included in discussion regarding a training scheme for male school leavers between the ages of 17 and 18.5 years. The scheme aimed to provide practical training and experience in engineering workshops with a view to school leavers learning the skills required to do their duty in one of the technical units of the armed forces. This scheme was separate to the established engineering apprenticeship schemes but was able to complement them by training boys who may not have otherwise had any engineering background to play a technical role in the armed forces.