Mike Irwin, of Cleveland, Tenn., says his German mentor spent a year learning English so he could help Irwin learn his new job at Wacker Polysilicon's plant in Bradley County.
"I had an individual mentor assigned to me," said Irwin about the six months he spent at Wacker's global headquarters in Berghausen, Germany. "He walked me through."
On Monday, Irwin and 50 other Wacker Polysilicon employees marked their return to the Chattanooga area after the six-month stint of intensive training in Germany. The lead chemical operators graduated from the Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Community College with a certificate in process technology and advanced process technology.
Soon they will start on site at Wacker's $1.8 billion factory under construction near Charleston, Tenn.
Konrad Bachhuber, the plant's site manager, said the 50 employees are the backbone of the facility's future.
"There's still a lot of work ahead of us," he said.
Bachhuber said 39 other Wacker employees are slated for a similar six-month tour in Berghausen for training before they, too, start work at the plant that's slated to begin production in late 2013.
Wacker plans to hire 650 people at the plant making polysilicon for the solar power industry. Currently, it has hired 280 people. Not all will go to Germany for training.
Scott Davis, who also graduated Monday, recalled that Wacker gave him and the other operators a lot of hands-on learning in Germany.
"Every chance they got they took us out in the field," he said.
Davis, 28, also of Cleveland, said Wacker talked a lot of how key safety is at the Charleston plant, which is the biggest single manufacturing investment ever in Southeast Tennessee.
Erika Burk, Wacker's human resources director, said there are a few buildings at the plant site where the newly graduated employees can work at this point while construction continues.
"The six months have made them ready from a practical standpoint," she said.
Tim McGhee, CSCC's dean of engineering technology, said the partnership between the college and Wacker is a significant one.
"There was no blueprint to do this," he said.
Jim Barrott, the college's vice president of technology, said 17 of the 51 who graduated had straight-A grades.
He said that with joblessness at the national level at over 8 percent, the group knew they had a job at the end of their training.
Bachhuber said that to his understanding, the people of Bavaria in Germany and Tennessee "are not too different. They're pretty close in attitude and lifestyle."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com and 423-757-6318.