By Brandon Mattingly, Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development
Already an automotive-industry national leader, Kentucky made tremendous strides in 2015, deepening its sector ties that stretch back to 1913 – when the state’s first Model T rolled out of a Ford assembly plant in Louisville. Today, whether looking to Ford’s upcoming production of all-new aluminum-bodied Ford Super Duty trucks, rollout of the first American-built Lexus (the ES 350) from Toyota’s flagship U.S. plant, or construction of the Corvette (the country’s most blistering and cutting-edge family of sports cars), industry watchers worldwide recognize Kentucky for its deep automotive resources, skilled workers and top-level achievements.
Through early December, nearly 75 automotive announcements brought more than $2.7 billion of investment and more than 4,800 new full-time jobs to Kentucky. Even more telling, the nature of the projects put Kentucky ahead of the curve in the ever-evolving automotive industry.
From a move to lighter-weight vehicles to upgraded state-of-the-art equipment to the production startup of one of the world’s most popular luxury vehicles, Kentucky is making its impact on the auto industry felt in a big way.
The three automakers with assembly plants in Kentucky – Ford, General Motors and Toyota – all made major announcements this past year, each influencing the industry in its own way.
In May, GM announced a $439 million investment at the Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green for technology upgrades and state-of-the-art environmental and efficiency enhancements among other improvements. In October, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, based in Georgetown, unveiled the first-ever Lexus ES 350 manufactured in the U.S. Production of the world’s top-selling Lexus sedan comes with an investment of $360 million and an anticipated 750 new jobs. Finally, in December, Ford announced investment of $1.3 billion in its Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, bringing with it 2,000 full-time jobs. The massive project prepares the facility to produce the 2017 class of F-Series Super Duty. The new-generation truck moves to a high-strength aluminum-alloy body in response to the industry adopting weight-saving technology to increase capability, performance and fuel economy.
It’s not all about the final product though Kentucky’s automotive suppliers notched a historic year as well. Bowling Green Metalforming, Kobe Aluminum and BILSTEIN in Bowling Green and Logan Aluminum near Russellville announced investments totaling $688 million while creating more than 850 jobs. Those represent just a few of the major announcements by Kentucky’s auto suppliers.
The industry’s shift to lighter-weight materials, including aluminum, tied into multiple product changes, renovations, new-equipment purchases and other announcements from Kentucky’s auto suppliers. In total, Kentucky’s aluminum-related facilities announced over $379 million in investment and the creation of more than 640 jobs in 2015, proving the state will continue its role as a major player in the auto industry’s changing landscape.
Plastics also grew its presence in the auto industry, which translated into jobs and investments in Kentucky’s manufacturing base last year. Plastic suppliers announced nearly $41 million in investments in 2015, creating more than 350 new full-time positions. Among them, Dr. Schneider Automotive Systems in Russell Springs will invest $13 million and create 145 jobs, Sabert Corporation in Shepherdsville plans an $8 million investment creating 35 jobs, and ISCO Industries in Louisville is making a $4.3 million investment expected to create 55 new positions.
Manufacturers report an increasing need for skilled workers in a variety of roles. In response, higher education institutions across the state are getting more involved with those very manufacturers to provide a strong, next-generation workforce. Through the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME), an industry-led apprentice-style program, students gain experience with a potential permanent employer while continuing their education at no cost to the student.
KY FAME is helping rapidly close the gap between the state’s technical and community colleges and the manufacturing sector.
A year ago, KY FAME started with one chapter in central Kentucky. Fast forward to 2016 and the innovative training-meets-education program spread statewide, expanding to eight regions throughout the Commonwealth with well over 100 companies taking part. Many students will begin the KY FAME program this fall with the goal of providing Kentucky’s auto industry and broader manufacturing sector with its most technically-skilled and target-trained workforce to date.
With all of the news surrounding the auto industry, it’s only fitting that Kentucky recognized its rich automotive history – and promising future – with the Kentucky Auto Industry Association’s inaugural AutoVision Conference, held in Louisville in September. The event brought together some of the industry’s brightest minds who shared their thoughts on how the state’s automotive sector gained so much ground and where it’s headed in the future. From aluminum light-weighting to self-driving cars and long-lasting batteries for hybrid and electric-only vehicles, speakers provided an inside look at the industry. From their point of view, Kentucky will see numerous opportunities for automotive-related economic growth in the years to come.
Given Kentucky’s century-long ties to the automotive industry, the past year’s momentous growth in the sector and training of future generations of workers already underway, the state looks to continue its progress for another century to come.
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