Why Preparing Engineers and Computer Scientists Matters for Kentucky

Tuesday. Oct. 3, 2017

Larry Holloway, interim dean of the UK College of Engineering, and I recently co-authored the following op-ed, focused on how the University of Kentucky is addressing the Commonwealth's workforce development needs, and how this work strengthens our role as the University for Kentucky. 


Kentucky has the potential to become a leading force in advanced manufacturing – an industry priority for the Commonwealth and a critical element in our state’s future economic growth and prosperity.

However, our state is facing key shortages in its workforce, specifically engineers and computer scientists who have the training and ability to develop new products and processes, support manufacturing industries, solve technological problems and lead complex organizations.

In fact, according to a 2013 report prepared in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, only 2.6 percent of Kentucky workers were engaged in STEM occupations – one of the lowest rates in the country.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development’s June 2016 Kentucky Occupational Outlook to 2024 projects an average of more than 2,600 job openings per year in disciplines related to engineering and computer science. This would mean that by 2024 there will be 12,500 new positions for our engineers and computer scientists, an 18 percent increase.

And a motivated workforce of creative engineers and computer scientists would create an ecosystem for innovation and entrepreneurship and attract high-performing companies to the Commonwealth.

Just look at the impact Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. has had on our community.

In 2015, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) found that Toyota’s presence in Kentucky has created an estimated 29,700 direct and indirect jobs. The disposable income these jobs created for our economy is estimated to be $1.3 billion annually.

Kentucky’s higher education leaders must increase their engagement with industry to produce better prepared and more experienced graduates to address our industry’s technical and business problems.

The University of Kentucky is doing its part by:

  • Working to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer science by 65 percent, from 631 graduates per year (2017) to more than 1,050 graduates per year (2024). This plan for growth includes increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded from both our Lexington and Paducah campuses;
  • Increasing the value of the technical workforce for industry, through broad-based skills in entrepreneurship, management and leadership, as well as technical specializations such as certificates in aerospace engineering, power engineering, production engineering, environmental engineering and biopharmaceutical engineering;
  • Deepening industry-university engagement to improve student preparation; and
  • Expanding partnerships with industry that provide solutions to technical and business problems and make Kentucky industry more competitive.

We know that this kind of investment will work.

A national study identified 41 potential factors in business relocation or expansion. Four of the top nine factors relate to the availability of a skilled workforce with managerial and technical ability.

A 2016 report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research for the Royal Academy of Engineering found that there “is evidence to suggest that a country seeking to improve performance in engineering – through increasing the number of graduates, improving infrastructure or raising employment in engineering fields – is likely to experience wider economic development as well.” (Engineering and Economic Growth: A Global View, a report by CEBR for the Royal Academy of Engineering, September 2016)

And last, but not least, engineering and computer science are the top-paid majors for bachelor’s degrees, according to a recent national survey (NACE Salary Survey Winter 2017, National Association of Colleges and Employers).  By providing an engineering workforce to enable company expansion in Kentucky or relocation to Kentucky, we are attracting well-paid jobs that support our Kentucky communities. 

Through investment in our universities and smart partnerships between education and industry leaders, we can help Kentucky successfully compete in a global economy.