FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - If you thought the automotive industry was Kentucky’s biggest exporter, think again.
It’s the aerospace and defense industry.
Stewart Ditto, executive director of the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium, told the General Assembly’s Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee the industry has over 600 companies, employs 17,000 and exported $11.7 billion last year, making it Kentucky’s number one sector, and ranking third in the nation, behind California and Washington.
Ditto told lawmakers the Consortium was formed “to ensure the industry became not just an exporter for Kentucky but a key economic impact driver.”
The aerospace and defense industry has been migrating out of its traditional stronghold, and his goal is to make sure Kentucky is a part of that.
“This is similar to what the automotive industry did decades ago,” he said. “Coming out of areas like Detroit into the Midwest and South like Kentucky, where there is a lower cost of living, better business regulations, lower energy costs. A lot of the suppliers for the automotive industry here in Kentucky started to diversify their business by manufacturing some of the parts for the aerospace industry.”
According to Ditto, the Consortium supplies another service. “We have the ability to find those lower-tiered suppliers, especially disadvantaged businesses, that the big companies are required to have in some of their Department of Defense contracts.”
He says education and research is a big part of the picture. “We want to make sure we have a sustainable workforce for the future. We’re working with the Aircraft and Pilots Association, who are developing a curriculum for K-12, to have that STEM education for the aerospace industry within their school system.”
Although no Kentucky university currently offers an Aerospace Engineering degree, Ditto told the panel Morehead State University is now in the process of converting their Space Science Engineering program to that.
The committee also heard from representatives of the Secretary of State’s office on their “Boots to Business” initiative, which had been advocated by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes for several years and was finally passed by the 2018 General Assembly.
Director of Policy and Constituent Services Corey Ann Howard Jackson told the committee the program is designed to help veterans transition from the military to civilian life.
“In 2017, our office identified 8,300 possible Kentucky businesses that were at least 50 percent veteran-owned. In the month and a half since the program’s inception, we have over 100 veterans taking part.”
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Joe Slaughter was the first person to apply for the benefits. “I just think it’s a great program and a way to reduce the barriers for especially small businesses,” he testified. “It reduces the transaction costs and increases efficiency over all.”
Slaughter said his company, K&S Community Development, will utilize his background in community development and urban planning to help develop communities in Kentucky.
Through “Boots to Business,” new business entities that are 51-percent owned by a military veteran or active-service member, including members of the National Guard, are eligible for fee waivers for the initial business filing and the annual report filing in the next four years of business.
The initiative enjoyed wide bipartisan support in the 2018 session. Reps. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, and DJ Johnson, R-Ownesboro, sponsored the legislation that created Boots to Business in the House of Representatives. Richards also carried the bill in previous sessions.