Mayors Urge Ky. To Boost Number Of Engineering Graduates

Nov 26, 2013

The mayors of Kentucky's two largest cities made a pitch Monday to increase the number of homegrown engineers.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (L), Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (R)
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (L), Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (R)

The move is part of a strategy to expand the region's manufacturing clout as Louisville and Lexington put aside their rivalry to team up on economic development.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray floated the goal of doubling the number of engineers produced by the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville within a few years. They urged Gov. Steve Beshear to include money in his budget proposal to state lawmakers next year to ramp up the engineering schools.

"Engineers and scientists are job-creating machines," Fischer said, noting their work spins off other jobs.

Beshear said in a statement later Monday that engineers play a key role in producing a quality workforce required by businesses.

"We are just beginning to build the budget for the upcoming biennium, and will be reviewing this proposal carefully," he said.

Gray said Kentucky lags behind most of the nation in producing engineers.

UK engineering Dean John Walz says it's a complaint he hears from companies across the state.

"One of the things I hear from them is, `We really could use more Kentucky engineers, because when we hire them from outside, they'll come in but after a few years they leave,'" Walz said.

The mayors also stressed the need to improve workers' skills and boost exports among area companies. They talked about setting up training centers in Louisville and Georgetown to prepare workers for highly technical jobs, and cited ongoing efforts to help companies tap into export markets to boost production.

The goal is to make the region a "world-class manufacturing center," Gray said. The region anchored by both cities is home to Ford, Toyota and General Electric plants, and a study by the Brookings Institution released Monday said the area has the potential to greatly expand its advanced manufacturing workforce.

The 22-county region accounts for slightly more than half of the state's gross domestic product with almost 2 million residents, more than 1,600 firms, and about 100,000 manufacturing jobs. The state's manufacturing sector hasn't kept pace with the nation in the past three decades, however, the study said.

The collaborative effort between Louisville and Lexington, which are separated by about an hour's drive, was the result of a conversation the mayors had at a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game a couple of years ago.

The study found that the region needs more skilled workers. The mayors said that starts with the state's engineering pool.

Fischer said that putting more engineers into the workforce would "send a signal to the world that we understand the importance of innovation." He urged state lawmakers to embrace the proposal to greatly increase the number of engineering graduates.

"You hear this: `There's no revenue, there's no revenue,'" the Louisville mayor said. "Well, as a state if we're not investing in education, whether it be pre-K or whether it be more engineers, we're not investing in the most important asset that we have."

UofL engineering Dean Neville Pinto said the two engineering schools are up to the challenge.

"We are prepared to educate our young people with the skills and ability to lead the world in technological innovation," he said.

Both schools already have increased the number of engineering students in recent years, the deans said.

Doubling the number of engineering graduates would require extra faculty and more classroom and lab space, they said.

Additional tuition money from more students would help pay for the expansion, but it also would require more state funding, the deans said. There would be some one-time costs for the expanded space, they said. Once fully ramped up, such an expansion would cost the state an extra $10 million or so per year, they estimated.

Fischer called it a "relatively low-cost investment" that would yield significantly more by making Kentucky more appealing for businesses to locate or expand.