EKU is Kentucky’s Manufacturing Hub

Published on February 09, 2024

By Elise Russell

Kentucky may be best known for bourbon and horses. However, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the state is the No. 1 producer of cars, light trucks and SUVs per capita, and in 2019, Kentucky exported more than $14.6 billion in aerospace parts and products. In a tournament presented by the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance, the Chevrolet Corvette was voted the 2023 Coolest Thing Made in Kentucky.

Additionally, much of the world’s sticky notes are made in Kentucky at the 3M factory. Carhartt assembles some of the well-known workwear in their Kentucky facility. And soon, two new electric vehicle battery plants will begin production in the Commonwealth. 

As the “Made in Kentucky” list continues to grow, Eastern Kentucky University—conveniently located in the heart of the state’s manufacturing hub—provides skilled graduates across many fields to meet workforce needs. With robust programs in occupational safety, engineering technology management, supply chain, risk management and insurance, aviation and now manufacturing engineering, EKU supports manufacturing operations at every step and prepares Kentuckians for a successful career in any manufacturing role. 

Cody Hill, ’17, chose to pursue a degree in occupational safety and health (OSH) at EKU after researching the field, job market and career growth potential. Out of college, he interned for Georgia-Pacific, then worked his way up through various safety-related positions at a few of the company’s mills across the South. Now, he’s the environmental health and safety (EHS) manager at the Bowling Green Georgia-Pacific Dixie plant, which produces paper plates and bowls. 

“The technical skills I learned during my time at EKU prepared me for my role in the manufacturing sector, and the connections I made directly affected where I am today,” Hill said. “In addition, EKU has a very well-established and respected OSH program, which I believe gave me a competitive advantage in the market.”

Alongside reputable programs, like occupational safety, EKU launched a degree program in manufacturing engineering last year to fill an industry need—becoming the only manufacturing engineering program in Kentucky and the region. A manufacturing engineering advisory council—composed of professionals from Valvoline, Lockheed Martin, Hitachi, Hyster-Yale, Tarter USA and other companies operating in Kentucky—provides input on the curriculum and internship opportunities for students. 

From the industry perspective, Jessica Mayes, corporate metallurgist for materials engineering at Lexmark and member of the EKU manufacturing engineering advisory board, said skilled and qualified graduates not only meet current needs within companies, but also attract more manufacturers to the area.

“If companies are going to come to stay in a community, we’ve got to guarantee that they’re going to have people who are capable and want to work for them,” Mayes said. “It’s an important two-way street that the students know they will get great jobs and the companies know they will get great employees.”

Even beyond degree programs, EKU offers corporate partnerships and workforce development programs to assist companies in educating and training their employees. Partnering with KAM further stamps the university’s role in the industry by connecting manufacturers with innovative solutions, resources and expertise. 

“This collaboration supports the development of a skilled workforce, the advancement of research and innovation, and the growth of the manufacturing sector,” said Frank Jemley III, president and CEO of KAM. “The partnership also helps promote economic development and job creation in Kentucky and the region.”

Kentucky’s manufacturing industry is poised to flourish with EKU at the hub—providing a skilled workforce for the Commonwealth and advancement opportunities for Kentuckians along the way.