What is Kentucky's leading export industry? If I told you that it's manufacturers of products for the aviation and aerospace industry, would you be surprised? Yet according to House Joint Resolution 100, passed unanimously by the 2015 General Assembly, that industry is indeed the commonwealth's top exporter.
Aerospace exports exceeded $7.6 billion in 2014, ranking Kentucky behind only Washington and California and quietly surpassing far better known industries such as automotive, second at $5.5 billion.
Robert Riggs, pilot, flight instructor, a founder and current board member of the Kentucky Aviation Association, has been a driving force behind the resolution, which directs the Transportation Cabinet, the Cabinet for Economic Development, and the Commission on Military Affairs to cooperatively study the economic impact of the overall aerospace/aviation industry in the commonwealth and to report its findings to the governor and the Legislative Research Commission. Riggs is also in the building materials business as owner of Riggs Sales Service.
Tom Martin: How did aviation and aerospace products manufacturing become Kentucky's top exporting industry?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Robert Riggs: On the aviation side, our airports and their economic impact on the economy in 1998 was the largest industry in the state. It was the largest employer at over 100,000 employees and running about $10 billion in gross domestic services. Aerospace manufacturing arrived along with the automotive industry. They're finding a place where they can get work done quality-wise and economically.
Martin: How many are employed in the industry now?
Riggs: We don't know, and that will hopefully come out in the economic impact study. We know there are somewhere close to 50 manufacturers across the state, small and large businesses.
Martin: And can you give us some examples of those, what they're making? Where they are?
Riggs: Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems in Danville makes brakes, wheels and landing gear for the aircraft industry. GE manufactures all of their engine parts in Madisonville and then ships them to Cincinnati to be assembled. Mazak Corporation — they're Japanese-owned — their North American headquarters is in Florence and they manufacture all of the hi-tech CNC (computer numerical control) machinery that makes these parts for a variety of industries.
Martin: We often hear that industry is crying for more talent.
Riggs: Advanced manufacturing is crying for employees both in automotive as well as aerospace manufacturing because a lot of that work is done by hi-tech CNC machinery and robots. I know Toyota is desperately trying to get more advanced manufacturing training employees into the new school at Bluegrass Community & Technical College in Georgetown. Southeast Community & Technical College in Cumberland has one. They're getting ready to open one in Morehead and there are four or five others across the state. We have only two aviation maintenance programs in the state. One is at Somerset, which has been in existence since the early '70s, and almost always 100 percent of their students are employed. Then Jefferson Community College also trains aircraft mechanics.
Martin: Morehead State University has become a world leader in developing and building micro and nano satellites?
Martin: The University of Kentucky houses NASA-Kentucky. Western Kentucky University researchers are conducting experiments on the international space station in partnership with the University of Louisville and the NASA Glenn research center. All of this happening at a time when we hear political figures in Washington calling for less spending on space science, particularly in the area of climate change and that's happening even as NASA is moving to protect its launch infrastructure from rising sea levels in Kennedy Space Center. Any thoughts on all that?
Riggs: Science gives us our lifestyle today. If it weren't for science, we wouldn't have synthetic fibers that make our clothes, and I dare say that some of us would not have any clothes to wear because there's not enough animals to clothe us. The telephone that you carry around in your pocket is a result of NASA studies that were done several decades ago in trying to miniaturize computers. Of course, we know how that exploded.
Experiments are starting now in our high school levels for eco-medicine. Kris Kimel at Kentucky Technology and Science Corporation is starting that endeavor and they're doing it at Morehead (State University) studying how to grow certain stem cell parts in microgravity. We can't do that without the help of science, and the advancement of medicine is going to be exponential.
The study called for in the state legislature's joint resolution also involves the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. What is the Cabinet being called upon to do specifically? Well, of course that's to identify the jobs aerospace and aviation. We now have more students studying aviation and aerospace in Kentucky than any state in the nation, thanks to the National Air and Space Education Institute.
We've got 28 high schools across the state joining the program because students seem to really love to get their hands dirty and do things practical, and aviation makes that link to physics and math and science that the students really need in order to understand what's going on in the textbook.
Martin: Rarely, if ever, do I hear anybody mention aerospace and aviation as a leading Kentucky industry yet here it is, the top export industry in the commonwealth. Do you think that it's time for a resetting of how we identify ourselves economically?
Riggs: Oh, absolutely. Kentuckians have always done well at quality manufacturing. It's just that nobody pays attention to us because we just go about doing our business and don't shout and scream about it.
Martin: Let's get back to education in connection with the industry. What's most needed in terms of workforce?
Riggs: We're not developing enough engineers. We've actually lost some opportunities to bring some international and national engineering firms into Kentucky because we don't have enough engineers. So we need to fix that. But then we also need more technology-oriented students who are willing to go into advanced manufacturing. And of course, mechanics. Boeing has identified a need for about 25,000 pilots a year for the next 20 years or more and an equal number of mechanics. For every pilot sitting in the cockpit seat there are about 6,000 jobs standing behind him that made the airplane, make the system work and everything else that ties into it. Our economy hugely depends on aviation. We move a lot of freight in this country. Kentucky is home to two international freight forwarders. We're the only state in the nation that can say that. So we've got a lot going for us and of course, our central location makes that even more possible.
Martin: You mentioned Morehead where there's a lot of research and development going on in MSU's Space Science Center. Is that work spurring a lot of innovation?
Riggs: Well, one is that Morehead State University just received a $7.9 million grant from NASA to study moisture on the moon. And Morehead ranks in the top five if not the top three in astrophysics education in the nation. Morehead has the largest radio telescope in the southeast.