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Public Policy: Kentucky’s Aerospace Industry is Soaring

Bills would ensure commonwealth has the workforce needed to keep the industry flying high

By Bob Babbage and Rebecca Hartsough

With a geographic location that primes Kentucky as a logistics and transportation giant, the aviation industry has become a burgeoning category for the Bluegrass State.

Aviation, avionics, and aerospace logistics and freight brought more than $16.2 billion in revenue to Kentucky in 2022. To add context, the state’s famed bourbon and equine industries produce over $15.5 billion in combined annual revenue.

With aerospace giants like Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation and Raytheon, Kentucky ranks No. 3 in the country for total aerospace exports, only behind Washington and California. The manufacturing arm alone supports over 23,000 jobs.

What’s more, Kentucky is the only state in the country with two cargo freight airports that rank in the top 10. Louisville International Airport (SDF), home to UPS WorldPort, is No.3 in North America for cargo handling. The Amazon and DHL air hubs make Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) the No. 6 cargo airport in North America. Altogether, SDF, CVG and their on-campus companies are some of the state’s largest employers.

The businesses operating at airports, the capital projects, and induced visitor spending contribute more than $80 million in revenue to local and state governments in Kentucky.

While the industry growth is undeniably positive, the rate at which it’s happening does present potential workforce challenges in the near and far future. For example, CVG airport supports more than 49,000 direct and indirect jobs and is expected to need thousand of new employees in the next five years.

So, the most pertinent question becomes: How do we support the industry and ensure these jobs are filled, companies stay, and the growth continues?

Two bills up for consideration in this year’s legislative session are designed to help address those issues. Rep. Ken Fleming (R-Louisville) and Sen. Brandon Storm (R-London) have filed House Bill 345 and Senate Bill 127, companion bills designed to promote aerospace and aviation education programming.

If passed, the Aerospace Education Reinvestment Opportunity Act (AERO) would establish a public-private partnership to fund industry education. The majority of the fund (65%) would go towards aviation training scholarships, promoting a new generation of pilots, mechanics, engineers and other professionals.  The intent is for educational institutions and industry-related companies to collaborate and offer these scholarships, potentially guaranteeing jobs to recipients and providing a clear career path. The other 35% of the fund will be used to grant public aviation programs the resources to purchase or lease modern training equipment.

The Council for Postsecondary Education would oversee the fund’s operations, ensuring responsible spending and transparency. The bill has a sunset clause in 2030, at which point lawmakers would assess its impact and decide on its future.

Ideally, the AERO Act would work in conjunction with other aerospace and aviation industry programs already established and growing in enrollment across the state.

Eastern Kentucky University’s aviation program trains pilots and students in aerospace management and technology. EKU reports that over 800,000 pilots will be needed in the next 20 years.

Morehead State University’s Space Systems Engineering bachelors and master’s programs continue to draw students. Students there train to design, build and operate spacecraft—think drones and satellites, the ones that are launched into space. MSU graduates have gone on to jobs at NASA and other top aerospace companies, many with operations in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Community and Technical College System is also investing in aerospace and aviation programs. Jefferson Community and Technical College and Somerset Community College both offer aviation maintenance technology programs.  Madisonville Community College offers helicopter and fixed wing flight training programs along with other certifications.

Of all the industries in Kentucky with initiatives being considered in Frankfort, the data does show that investment into the already thriving aerospace and aviation industries will pay lofty dividends in terms of jobs and revenue well into the future.