Doing What It Takes: Louisville Gets the Job Done for its Manufacturing Sector

Oct. 24, 2017
No stranger to thoroughbreds, Louisville is combining economic incentives and educational programs to make sure it wins the race for manufacturing’s future.

Louisville is not a city that takes its manufacturing community for granted. When Ford Motor Co. was thinking about shutting down a plant in the city in 2008, the government quickly sprang into action. City officials pulled out all the stops, enlisting then Gov. Steve Beshear to intercede. The governor hauled up to Detroit and asked Ford what it would take to keep the plant in Louisville. Armed with ideas he came back to his state and passed what was then a very unusual program to create a credit for job retention.

“The governor understood that retention can also be as important as bringing in new jobs,” explains Gabby Bruno, director of State and Government Affairs, Ford Motor Co.  “The state passed an economic development tool that allowed the plant to stay open. Today we still use that tool and other manufacturers and suppliers access this financial incentive.”

That proactive measure laid the groundwork for continued expansion by Ford. In fact in June of this year the company spent $900 million in upgrades at the Kentucky Truck Plant to build the new Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.  

With the growth of such anchors as Ford and GE, Louisville has put renewed focus on ensuring that young people are prepared for manufacturing jobs. 

This investment secured 1,000 jobs at the plant and was in addition to a $1.3 billion investment made in 2015 that added 2,000 workers to build the Ford Super Duty truck.  

Together with the Ford Assembly Plant located in Louisville, the company employs 13,600 at the two facilities.

One of the reasons that Ford continues to grow in this region is the “willingness on the part of the government to take action. They extended themselves, back then, not even knowing if it was enough to save the day,” explains Ford’s Bruno. It’s this strong business culture which reacts proactively toward the manufacturing sector that became a model for the region. “This method of doing business became a best practice and has received national recognition,” she added. 

Another very large manufacturer, GE Appliances, has also stuck by this city. A year ago the company was sold to Qingdao-Haier Co. Ltd.  A few months after the acquisition, Haier moved its U.S. headquarters from Connecticut to Louisville. With 6,000 employees at Appliance Park, and an investment of $1 billion in the plant since 2010, the move made sense. 

Tom Quick, vice president of Human Resources at GE Appliances, believes in Louisville. “We have a rich history in manufacturing and we continue to leverage that advantage.”

“The region is at a unique period in its history as the strength of both the appliance and auto industries play into an economic cycle where these products are highly valued by consumers and thus drive economic growth.” 

At GE Appliances’ FirstBuild facility, Ty Adams of Louisville posts one of his  sketches for a construction job site microwave. 


The numbers support Quick’s analysis. Since 2011, manufacturing employment in the Louisville area has grown more than 30%. The industry employs around 83,000 or about 12% of the city’s workforce.

“Our region’s manufacturing sector, which includes over 400 medium and small companies, contributes more toward this area’s GDP than the national manufacturing average,” says Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, an economic development agency. 

“We are really a success story for Made in America,” she adds. “We have a long history in manufacturing and post-recession we have continued to focus on this sector. We have had success growing our advanced manufacturing business.” Wiederwohl points to the region’s (Louisville-Jefferson County) ranking as the top city for a growing manufacturing workforce in 2016 as ranked by Forbes. 

Another economic achievement that Wiederwohl is proud of is that this city earned top ranking from the Federal Reserve as a city where supporting a family does not require a four-year degree. This is due to the wages from manufacturing, says Wiederwohl, where a two-year degree or various certifications enable families to make a good living. “It’s part of who we are as a city.”

Wide Range of Talent Training 

With the growth of such anchors as Ford and GE, Louisville has put renewed focus on ensuring that young people are prepared for manufacturing jobs. Just this year the Jefferson County Public Schools introduced Learning Academies in 11 high schools. The goal of the program is to “connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world through a subject that interests them.” Every student receives a personalized experience within a small learning community; participates in hands-on, project-based learning; and develops 21st-century essential skills.

The goal of FirstBuild is to enable ideas to move into prototypes, as demonstrated by Jonathan Crosby, who is assembling components for a water dispenser. 

After four years in an academy, graduates will have participated in summer employment, job shadowing experience, senior-year apprenticeships, and the ability to earn industry credentials or college credits. And the students leave with a postsecondary transition plan.

“Manufacturing is one of the paths of this new program that we, along with other manufacturers, have been working on,” says GE’s Quick. “Among the manufacturing community, we realize that we all have an issue of finding skilled labor and even though we might be competing for the same talent, we are willing to work together to ensure that the level of talent is high.”

Another program that has shown success in the region is the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME). It’s a partnership of regional manufacturers whose purpose is to implement dual track, apprenticeship-style training that will create a pipeline of highly skilled workers. The primary method to achieve this goal is through partnerships with local educational institutions to offer the Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program (AMT).

“We have brought students into our factory to let them see the type of work we do,” explains Kent Suiters, leader - Supply Chain ERP, Learning & Initiatives, GE Appliances, “We let students know that they can create careers here and it’s been successful as the number of students in this program has increased considerably.”

One of the reasons for success is the favorable economic opportunity it offers students. Students work on the job three days a week, attend school two days a week and get paid for a five-day workweek. At the end they have an AMT certification, an associate degree in applied science, and no debt. “It’s a great program to start a career,” says Kent, who is president of the Greater Louisville KY FAME.  

Ford is employing innovative methods to expose future employees to manufacturing. At its Louisville plant the company turned an old boiler room into a mock assembly line. They wanted students to understand the pace of the work and what it felt like to work on a line. “It was a way for both the students and us to test out which employees would be successful at our plant and then we could provide extensive training,” explains Tami Hatfield, workforce development manager at Ford Motor Co. It became a model across Ford. 

Another program Ford created was to provide “externships” to teachers in the school district. “We had to make sure the teachers understood the many facets of a manufacturing career so they could offer this field to their students,” said Bruno. “Problem-solving is what we do on a daily basis and this skill set appeals to many students,” adds Bruno. 

“We are able to tap into the global Ford Next Generation learning program to create the workforce we need across the country and right here in Louisville,” Bruno adds.

Attracting students to manufacturing is not a luxury in this region; they are in dire need of workers.  There are 20,000 jobs that need to be filled in this area. 

Ford is very active in this search for workers and frequently opens up its factory for tours. During the school year they conducted 700 tours. 

These programs, unique in Ford’s footprint, are necessary in Louisville to quickly attract potential employees as Ford scoops up a large portion of the talent pool each time it expands. 

Room to Grow

Expansion is on the mind of everyone in the region. 

“We want to grow even faster,” says Weiderwohl. “We know that we need to have the amenities that attract future workers.” Those amenities include parks, exercise areas and other entertainment options.

While many cities are pursing those same goals, Quick points out that what Louisville can offer its younger workforce is a strong entrepreneurial atmosphere. He points to GE Appliances’ FirstBuild center. It’s an online and physical community, located on the campus of the University of Louisville, dedicated to designing, engineering, building and selling the next generation of major home appliances. There is a microfactory that houses rapid and advanced manufacturing techniques which enable inventors to produce products quickly and on a small scale.  

“Bringing students, and the community, to a location on a campus creates a lot of excitement and spurs imagination,” says Quick. 

Imagination and determination seem to be the hallmarks of this region, which will create whatever programs its needs, in cooperation with the business community, to continually push forward. Resting on its laurels is not in this region’s DNA.  IW

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