By Phil Bredesen
I wish every eighth grader in Chattanooga could see what I saw today.
I’m in Berlin as I write this, in Germany, and have just returned from Wolfsburg—the birthplace and mother ship of Volkswagen. The visit today left me with even greater optimism about our future with Volkswagen. But today was also a concrete lesson for me in what the factory of the future is becoming, and it’s that glimpse of the future that I’d like those eighth graders to see.
The Wolfsburg factory is enormous—I was told it is the largest factory of any kind under one roof anywhere in the world—but my strongest impression touring it is just how few people there were out there on the factory floor. Everywhere you looked, there were cars and car parts being made: equipment pushing and prodding the chassis and panels around, presses stamping, robots welding. But in whole sections of the factory real people were far fewer than I would have imagined, at least those who weren’t monitoring a computer display.
I stood at one station where the dashboard was assembled to the car. Machines moved the next painted chassis into position, and a very clever robot picked up a complete dashboard with the key hanging out of the ignition, slipped it in through the door, wiggled it around and positioned it carefully. Another put in bolts and tightened the nuts. Anyone who has ever put in or taken out a dashboard knows just how complicated and knuckle-busting it can be. These machines did one every 45 seconds, and there was never a human within a hundred feet of it as long as I stood there and looked.
One large hall, where the power train and the body were finally mated, was called the “Ghost Hall”. That says it all. As you ride through it on the tram, you can imagine it, not that long ago, full of men and women assembling cars. Today there were creaks and hydraulic noises and flashing indicator lights and movement, but little flesh and blood. I believe if you wanted to, you could turn off the lights in there and keep on building those VW Golfs in complete darkness.
The lesson here is not some complaint that factory work is obsolete or that technology is making us all superfluous; far from it. The Wolfsburg complex employs 54,000 people in good, high paying jobs. But most of them don’t position and bolt and weld. They invent, they design, they purchase and contract. They do the logistics to make sure the machines have parts to work with. And they program those machines to build the cars and they fix those same machines when they break. And yes, some of them still load parts and check results, but you can already see a future in which those jobs get fewer and farther between.
My message from Berlin to all you Chattanooga eighth graders is just this: if you want to work in a factory and build things, that is a fine and honorable way to make a life for yourself and the family you’ll have someday. And I believe after this trip to Germany that Volkswagen is going to offer even more opportunity to do just that that I imagined even this past summer.
But the lesson from Wolfsburg is that you need a good education to play; you need more education than you think you do right now. Stay in school. Take lots of math. Graduate. Go to college if you can.
Building cars—building anything for that matter—has long been honorable and respected work. But building cars is becoming with every passing year more and more something you do with your mind as much as your hands.