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COLUMN: Automotive industry becomes regional point of pride

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By Rick Games, Work Matters

For more than a century, America has had a fascination – a love affair, some say – with automobiles.

Cars and trucks are more than transportation for us. In fact, few things are so deeply rooted in our culture. After all, most of us can hum the tune of “Little Red Corvette,” or “409” and recognize celebrity cars from Steve McQueen’s Mustang to Herbie the Love Bug.

But part of what gives cars and trucks such a place in our hearts, especially in Kentucky, is our hand in making these celebrated machines.

Last year, more than 1.2 million cars and trucks were produced in Kentucky, ranking our state third in the country for light vehicle production.

As Kentucky looks to play an even greater part in the auto industry, it’s important to realize a quality workforce has become one of the highest priorities of companies exploring expansions and new locations.

Some positions require special skills, such as welding, and the great news is that credentials are attainable right here in our region. But more broadly, many employers look for someone who has basic skills – reading, writing, computer literacy and work ethic – and can successfully complete a company’s training program.

The industry as well as its potential is of statewide significance. Kentucky’s automotive assembly plants - Ford in Louisville, Toyota in Georgetown and General Motors in Bowling Green - of course, come to mind. But nearly 450 other auto related businesses operate in Kentucky.

In the eight-county Lincoln Trail region, there are dozens of such companies, combining to employ more than 8,000 people, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

From Metalsa, which produces Ford truck frames in Elizabethtown, to plastics manufacturer INOAC Group North America in Springfield and Plastikon Industries in Leitchfield, to Curtis-Maruyasu America in Lebanon, which supplies fluid and gas control products, the Lincoln Trail area knows automotive. Workers in our region are producing a wide range of vehicle components for a number of auto manufacturers.

These area plants are supplying the great brands – Toyota, Ford, GM, Nissan and more.

The industry’s impact on the area’s economy and quality of life is substantial to say the least, and there’s reason to believe that will be the case for years to come.

The automotive business is undergoing an exciting rebound. North American production is on track to pass 16 million vehicles this year.

Companies are regaining confidence. Some companies with a Kentucky presence already are expanding their facilities and workforces, and other companies are searching for new U.S. locations. Our region is ready for them.

“Today the automotive industry has bounced back from a tough recession and our recruitment efforts are as strong as they have been in over a decade,” noted Kim Huston, president of Nelson County Economic Development Agency and a member of the Lincoln Trail Workforce Investment Board.

The Kentucky Automotive Industry Association, formed in the spring, adds to those recruitment efforts. The governor’s formation of the association shows companies Kentucky is serious about the automotive industry, and it touts some of the great companies already doing business in Kentucky. The association brings public and private sector leaders together to share best practices and help modernize our workforce among other things.

Four of the 11 automotive industry representatives on the association’s board of directors are from companies in the Lincoln Trail region. These are companies that have discovered the benefits of our region.

Our location appeals to those with ties to Louisville and Georgetown as well as those who send their products to Michigan or the assembly plants of the South. And the certified Glendale megasite, Southern Business and Development magazine’s top ranked megasite, bodes well for our region’s future automotive industry.

Additionally, our area has the strong workforce and training programs companies need to succeed. And a vibrant network of workforce development professionals and training providers are continuously improving the region’s competitiveness.

Through the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association – really, a who’s who in the automotive industry - companies ready to invest will have yet another indicator that Kentucky and the Lincoln Trail region have what they need to succeed.

Rick Games is president and COO of Elizabethtown/Hardin County Industrial Foundation. He can be reached at 270-737-0300.