Workers train outside U.S.

Workers train outside U.S.

May 8th, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Volkswagen employee Jeff Gilbert, 48, connects brake lines at his work station on the on the new Chattanooga car company assembly line. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

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For many of Volkswagen's Chattanooga workers, greetings such as "hola" and "guten tag" are just part of the job.

As VW's work force has learned how to make cars at the new Tennessee plant, many have had to learn the rudiments of or bone up on Spanish and German as they've traveled to some of the automaker's factories outside the United States to train.

VW has sent about 1,000 employees, more than half of its employees hired so far, to other plants for training, according to the company.

The German carmaker doesn't have any other production plants in the U.S. So sending workers to factories outside the country is its only option, officials said.

As more internationally based companies start operations in the Chattanooga area, the businesses are dispatching workers abroad to help learn their trades.

Wacker Chemical Corp., which is building a $1.5 billion solar plant in Bradley County, Tenn., is paying to send its first 70 trainees to Germany for six months.

Alstom Power, meanwhile, sent some engineers for its new Chattanooga turbine factory to Europe for as long as two years.

About quality

VW spokesman Scott Wilson said people from each of the local auto plant's major departments have traveled to foreign operations run by the carmaker.

While VW's Mexico plant is the most common destination, Chattanooga workers have spent stints in European sites as well, including VW's massive headquarters factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, he said.

"The reason is quality," Wilson said about the training. "The quality has to be top notch."

Jeff Gilbert, 48, who works on the VW assembly line here, said the aim is zero defects. He spent two weeks in VW's Puebla, Mexico, auto assembly plant, including working on a moving line.

"They make 30 cars an hour," Gilbert said. "I learned I can work at 30 cars an hour."

He said the Mexican plant produces the Jetta compact, which shares some parts with the all-new midsize Passat made in Chattanooga.

"There's no substitute for hands-on experience," Gilbert said. "It's priceless."

Chattanoogan Rachel DeFriese joined VW a little over a year ago, and she has traveled to the automaker's operations in Mexico five times for training.

"There are a lot of different skills to learn," said DeFriese, who does spot repairs on the new Passats.

DeFriese, 24, said she has been to Mexico for a total of 10 weeks as she tries to develop the skills she needs for her job.

"Spraying is hard to get down," she said. "I got to go before things started running [in Chattanooga] and got to see the whole process. Everytime I went I got a little bit better."

Understanding Spanish wasn't that big of an issue, DeFriese said.

"We could mostly understand what they were saying," she said, adding there were translators available.

Julian Gardner, 36, started working at Chattanooga's VW plant about a 11/2 years ago, and he already has made training stops to VW factories in Mexico, Germany and Spain.

"You get to see how other cultures live and work," he said, adding that he has made key contacts to help him keep the plant's robots running.

Train others

Jeff Zierenberg, Wacker's manager of human resources in Bradley, said the company plans to have 70 employees start at Chattanooga State Community College in the August semester.

After finishing classroom studies, they'll visit Germany for six months of training at Wacker's facilities in Burghausen, Zierenberg said.

The 70 will be first-line supervisors, he said, and will train other workers as they come on board. The employees will be paid.

Paris-based Alstom built a 350,000-square-foot turbine factory next to its existing operation on Riverfront Parkway last year. Producing the world's largest gas and steam turbines for nuclear power plants as well as doing retrofitting work, Alstom has sent at least 50 workers to Europe.

Some employees were in Europe for extended periods because they've got to study products going through their life cycles, said Kurt Greene, the turbine facility's human resources director.

"We don't crank these out every six minutes like an auto plant," he said. "They've got long lead times."

The workers also were able to train new employees in Chattanooga, Greene said. "We don't send people to Europe perpetually."

Alstom estimated it spent about $10 million on training.

VW's Chattanooga plant recently produced the first customer car and is slowly ramping up for sales to begin in the third quarter. The plant is slated to produce 150,000 vehicles a year when fully operational.