FRANKFORT – Each October, the Cabinet for Economic Development highlights an industry that can be summed up in three words: Made in Kentucky.
It’s a phrase that can be applied to more and more products every year. The Cabinet says there are now 4,500 manufacturing facilities across the commonwealth, and they employ 256,000 people. That’s about 13 percent of our total workforce.
The biggest piece of that pie is the automotive sector, which includes our four assembly plants in Louisville, Bowling Green and Georgetown and 515 other factories that provide the parts those and other assembly plants need.
We manufacture well over one million cars and trucks annually, which outpaces every state but Michigan and Ohio. It’s worth noting that Kentucky’s ties to the industry also date back more than a century. Louisville began making Model Ts in 1913, just five years after Henry Ford put the first ones on the road.
As prominent as that industry is, it ranks a distant second among our exports to other countries. Aerospace products account for almost $11 billion of the total $30 billion Kentucky now ships annually outside of this country, which is double the $5.5 billion worth of vehicles that are sold.
All told, customers in almost 200 countries buy products made here. There are numerous reasons why we have such a wide reach, but a key factor is that we have not one but two of the country’s top 12 airports for cargo.
Louisville’s UPS hub is the biggest and can handle more than 400,000 packages an hour. DHL, meanwhile, has significantly increased its presence at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, investing nearly $300 million in its air hub since 2009. Amazon is moving forward with a $1.5 billion hub at that airport as well.
Another element of Kentucky’s manufacturing success is that we’re remarkably diverse. Bourbon, of course, is a signature product, and there are more than eight million barrels now aging in warehouses, or about two for every one of our citizens.
There are also many well-known products that most people have no idea come from Kentucky.
f you see a disco ball anywhere in the United States, for example, there’s a nine-in-10 chance it was made in Louisville. A Hopkinsville plant rolls out most of the bowling balls used worldwide, and Lexington is home to the world’s largest peanut butter plant.
Speaking of food, we also manufacture Uncrustables sandwiches (Scottsville), Airheads candy (Erlanger), Hot Pockets (Mt. Sterling), Ragu spaghetti sauce (Owensboro) and Pop Tarts (Pikeville). Any leftovers can be kept fresh using Reynolds Wrap, which debuted in Louisville 99 years ago.
There are several other products where Kentucky dominates. Most of the decks of playing cards we shuffle come from Northern Kentucky; Louisville Slugger has been making most of Major League Baseball’s bats for more than a century; Cynthiana has long been home to most of the Post-It notes we use to jot down lists and reminders; and Southcentral Kentucky is where the houseboat industry first set sail more than 60 years ago.
Although not tied directly to manufacturing, Kentucky earned another unique distinction earlier this spring when Louisville hosted what Guinness World Records says was the largest robot competition ever held. It drew more than 30,000 students from teams based in China, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
That competition underscores the increasingly important role that STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – play in today’s economy and the need to have more students excelling in them. Those young men and women are the ones we will count on to make sure Kentucky remains a leader in manufacturing and other cutting-edge industries, and it’s an area where we cannot afford to fall behind.
If you have any thoughts on this or other issues affecting the state, let me know. My email is Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free legislative message line – which is staffed during normal business hours – is 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.