MONTGOMERY — Governor Kay Ivey on Monday spoke exclusively with Yellowhammer News about her recent trip to the Paris Air Show, discussing the state’s soaring aerospace industry, site selection, workforce development, supply chains and more.
Fresh off of the whirlwind trip to Europe, where she had nine scheduled appointments with aerospace companies and several more impromptu discussions with industry executives, Ivey said, “The trip was very valuable.”
This comes after a historic year for Alabama’s aerospace industry. The Department of Commerce recently announced that exports for that industry rose an incredible 28% year-over-year. The total value of the shipments, going to 97 countries, rose to $2.4 billion, which was nearly $1 billion higher than 2016’s total.
As Ivey explained to Yellowhammer News, this success is not happening by accident. The continuing growth comes amid, and as a result of, diligent strategic efforts to build Alabama into a worldwide aerospace juggernaut.
The governor, noting that she also travelled to Stuttgart, Germany to meet with the leaders of Daimler AG during the trip, said that the current situation for the state’s aerospace industry is similar to what Alabama’s automotive industry was experiencing in the 1990’s, when Mercedes-Benz’s arrival put the Yellowhammer State on the cusp of becoming a leading international automotive manufacturer.
“If we can grow aerospace as fast as we’ve grown automotive, I think we’ll be in good shape,” she remarked.
Ivey outlined that a lot of planning and work has gone into positioning Alabama’s aerospace industry for its surge.
In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Alabama Department of Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield reinforced this, saying, “This is truly an exciting and pivotal point in our state’s history.”
“The success of Alabama’s economic development team is directly related to the quality of the state’s workforce,” he continued. “Our success is producing the effect of putting more Alabamians on company payrolls across the state, and we are experiencing the lowest levels of unemployment in our history.”
‘Alabama is an easy sell’
Now, just like has occurred with the automotive industry in the state, the growth is becoming exponential. As supply chain companies continue to set up shop in Alabama to support new and existing aerospace companies, the environment gets better and better for the state to be able to recruit even more new companies.
In fact, during the Paris Air Show trip, Ivey said that the Alabama team discovered seven prospective new projects, or recruitment opportunities, and advanced another five potential projects that were already being worked by the state.
A core reason that companies keep choosing Alabama over competitors during the site selection process is the state’s meticulous workforce development efforts.
During such a crucial time for the state aerospace industry, it also inspires confidence from existing and prospective companies that Ivey personally considers the industry as a top priority. This was evident in her presence at this year’s air show, her third consecutive year in attendance. The governor worked tirelessly during the trip, walking to the respective booths of industry leaders she met with at the fair-like event to personally pitch them on choosing Alabama as their “Sweet Home.”
Talking about how those pitches were received, Ivey expressed tremendous optimism that some of the companies she met with will “come on board and do business in Alabama.”
She also explained what selling points go into these industry pitches, emphasizing, “Alabama is an easy sell.”
“They want to know about your infrastructure, and of course we’re proud to tell them we’re right on top of that, and they want to know about your workforce, and certainly we talked to them about our unparalleled workforce,” the governor shared.
“It’s a business-friendly state, we’ve got an unparalleled workforce,” Ivey said. “And if you choose to be ‘Made in Alabama,’ you can expect excellence.”
The governor added that the positive, “very profitable” experiences of companies who have already chosen Alabama naturally attract prospective companies, who are impressed by what they see and hear.
“People were very receptive, and they know the other aerospace firms that are located here already — and that speaks volumes to them. So, it’s an easy pitch to give,” Ivey advised.
It is not just the current workforce strength that companies look at, Ivey said, but “what are you doing to keep the pipeline full.”
“We start out first by telling them what we’ve got in place now, whether it’s AIDT, the community college system, and we talk about when we launched my education initiative ‘Strong Start, Strong Finish.’ We go into the three components of that, etc, etc. And then we move to keeping that pipeline filled and growing, and that’s also major, seems to perk them up,” Ivey shared. “So, we talk about the fact that we’ve created the [Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation], and that office serves solely to align the funding sources for workforce development with workforce development projects all over the state so that all Alabamians can prosper. There’s a lot of money in workforce development, funds that come in. The key is getting the funding aligned with projects, and that showed the folks we were talking to that we are forward-thinking, we’re not resting on our laurels, we intend to grow with them… We’re providing jobs and training for the present, but also we’re looking far into the future.”
In addition to infrastructure and workforce needs, companies are especially interested in an existing and potential supply chain presence, something Alabama is making significant strides with.
“Companies like Airbus, Aerojet Rocketdyne and ULA (United Launch Alliance), these companies have supply chains, and as those companies grow, we can recruit [additional] supply companies. And those supply companies bring more jobs, too — so that’s a good thing,” she added. “And those supply chains also serve as anchors for the firms that they have been doing business with. So, it’s a very easy sell to make on behalf of Alabama.”
‘We want to do business with them’
Ivey was far from the only leader from Alabama making that sell in Paris, exemplifying the unified focus of state and local officials, as well as economic development and industry professionals.
“It’s not so much that I made the trip, as it is that this was the largest delegation Alabama’s ever had at a trade show, so that speaks volumes to those folks to show people that Alabama is serious about doing business with these companies,” the governor stressed. “We want to do business with them — we’re there to meet you one-on-one.”
She detailed that the state’s aerospace industry has widespread geographic strength, from Huntsville and Decatur to coastal Alabama and the Wiregrass.
“Mobile, with Airbus… in less than a decade… will be one of the top four cities in the world in aerospace manufacturing,” Ivey said, before commenting on the rotorcraft strength of areas near Fort Rucker in southeast Alabama.
“Aerospace is growing statewide, not just in Huntsville,” she added.
‘The world’s not standing still’
While the advances being made under the Ivey administration could set up future generations of Alabamians with unprecedented levels of prosperity to enjoy, the governor told Yellowhammer News that she does not think in terms of her legacy.
“No, I don’t focus on my legacy, I just focus on looking at what needs improvement for better quality of life and opportunity for our people,” Ivey said. “And for far too long, just like infrastructure — 27 years with no change in funding… these difficult challenges have been unaddressed for so long that will benefit our people and their opportunities.”
“That’s what I’m focused on,” she added, calling addressing these pressing challenges her “passion.”
Her mode of operation is to “solve these difficult problems, get them out of the way and move on [to the next issue].”
Canfield commented, “Fortunately, Governor Ivey had the foresight to recognize that we must grow a workforce pipeline of available and highly-skilled Alabamians to meet our projected job growth. Her initiatives like Strong Start, Strong Finish, Success Plus, Alabama Works and Apprenticeship Alabama are creating a sustainable and scalable pipeline of highly skilled Alabamians. The Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation plays a major role in aligning the efforts of PK-12, the Community College System, AIDT and our four-year universities as we collaborate with the private sector to prepare Alabamians for the job opportunities of the future in our state.”
“[T]he world’s not standing still,” Ivey emphasized. “The world’s moving on and we’ve got to move with it.”
As time moves on, Alabama’s aerospace industry is poised to continue its upward climb.
“Aerojet Rocketdyne recently closed one of their units in California and transferred the workers here — and closed something else in Virginia and brought their workers here,” the governor said.
“If you talk to the folks at Aerojet, they’ll tell you that when they were first [approached about coming to Alabama, they said], ‘Going where?? Alabama?!’ But now that those folks are here and have been on the job and living here, they love it,” Ivey stressed. “So, I’m trying to find a way that we can get the essence of that message delivered… share that message with other folks so that maybe they’ll just want to move their firms back here to the southeast, where doing business makes sense.”
Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn