Kentucky's business climate is more global than ever

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 28, 2013 

What does a Kentucky-crafted product look like?

In the 1960s, the defining Central Kentucky product was an IBM typewriter, made in the Lexington plant that revolutionized the region.

But today, the area's largest employers are as likely to provide services as produce Toyotas.

Welcome to the new Central Kentucky knowledge economy.

Central Kentucky's top employers are the University of Kentucky, with 14,000 workers; Toyota in Georgetown, 7,900; Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, 2,699; Fayette County Public Schools, 5,374; and Xerox, which provides call center services in locations throughout the region, 3,000.

Lexmark International, the printer giant that has its global headquarters in Lexington, employs 2,800.

Health care also makes a huge mark in Lexington, which is a health destination for many patients from Central, southeastern and Eastern Kentucky: Baptist Healthcare System employs 3,000; Kentucky One Health (which includes the Saint Joseph system), 2,500; Veterans Medical Center, 1,500; and Lexington Clinic, 1,300.

Among retailers, the top employers are Walmart, with 2,027 employees in the region, and Kroger, with 1,665 employees., which operates a fulfillment warehouse in Lexington and is establishing an office in Winchester, employs, 1,200.

Lockheed Martin employs 1,705 in "contract support services" for one of the nation's leading defense contractors. Trane Lexington employees 1,000 in manufacturing heating and cooling systems.

While the employment breakdown tends heavily toward services, it also reflects the new economy — in which Internet purchases need shipping (Amazon) and many companies need outsourced phone support (Xerox). Even Lexmark, which makes printers, finds itself in the business of "document support" — figuring out processes to manage mounds of data in ways that include more than paper.

"Clearly business is more information-oriented and is more global than anyone could have imagine a generation ago," said David Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "We have had huge disruption in the employment makeup of Kentucky — many positive and some negative disruptions. A generation ago, UPS barely existed in Kentucky as an employer, and now employs more people in one location than the entire coal industry in Kentucky. And we think of coal as being one of the foundational sectors of our economy."

The jobs Kentuckians should now be training for require skills in information, telecommunications and global commerce, said Adkisson, who has also served as mayor of Owensboro and a higher education advocate.

"Higher skills are required to navigate this economy," he said. "Workers need an associate degree or a college certification. High school dropouts are really at the mercy of government support programs because the economy is not at all kind to people who don't have a high school diploma."

Some defining trends in the next 10 years will be worker shortages as baby boomers retire as the economy continues to recover, Adkisson said, and needed immigration reform that will encourage skilled foreign workers who trained in the United States to stay here to live.

Health care will also continue to be a driving force for job creation, he said.

Cheryl Truman is a business and general assignment reporter. (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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