Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that quality workers are key in competing for projects such as a new vehicle for Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, and he lauded an innovative German-American training initiative at the factory.
"Closing the skills gap is among the highest priorities in the state," he told the first dozen graduates of the automation mechatronics program at the factory.
Haslam said he's "very optimistic" the plant can capture another assembly line to produce a second vehicle -- reportedly a new-to-America, seven-seat SUV -- but no decision has been made by the German automaker.
"We're having ongoing discussions," Haslam said, adding that groups are traveling between Germany and Tennessee. Haslam said he does not think that talk about a German-style labor board and potential United Auto Workers recognition by employees at the site is hanging up the SUV project.
While he and others have expressed worries that UAW organizing efforts at the plant will hurt the factory and state economic development efforts, Haslam said he's working out a meeting with top VW labor leaders, who indicated they'd like to meet with Tennessee public officials.
"I've gotten a letter from a couple of folks ... who would like to meet," the governor said. "I said 'I'd be glad to do that.'"
VW is expected to decide between Chattanooga and Mexico as a production site for the SUV by year's end.
Three years ago, VW, the state and Chattanooga State Community College officials announced the training program that combines vocational classroom education and paid on-the-job training. The aim is to develop craftsmen to keep the highly technical mechanical and electronic systems at the plant up and running.
The dozen graduates are guaranteed a job at the plant, earning a starting pay of about $22 an hour or more than $40,000 a year, well above that of a typical production worker. Each year, the program has recruited more students into the three-year program, so there will be a steady stream of skilled employees.
VW officials said the dozen graduates are the first Americans to achieve certification from the German Chambers of Commerce for completing the program.
Frank Fischer, who heads the Chattanooga plant's operations, said VW is more than a factory and its product. The company is also about its people, he said.
"It's about building careers," Fischer said. Fischer cited the complexity of control systems in the plant and said they can cost the factory a lot of down time if not working properly.
Sebastian Patta, the plant's vice president of human resources, said Chattanoooga is building its own pool of experts.
"Why import talent when you can develop it here?" he asked.
Ian Gwaltney, a graduate and the class valedictorian, said he joined the program out of Bradley Central High School because he likes working with his hands and doing both classroom and on-the-job training.
"You see how it's used in a real-world application," said Gwaltney. He said he plans to pursue an engineering degree full-time, but is guaranteed a job at VW in the future.
The class salutatorian, Caleb Higginbotham, recalled he used to work at a print shop and was happy when equipment broke down so he could fix it. Then he read an article about the VW program, decided to join and "the rest is history."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said that investing in people is how companies and cities build prosperity. The training program is "bringing German-style knowledge and education" to Chattanooga, he said.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the initiative has a big pay-off in that it produces family-wage jobs.
Gary Booth, who manages the Volkswagen Academy where much of the training takes place, said the ceremony marked not just a graduation but "the recovery of skilled manufacturing jobs in America" and a new benchmark for teaching technical skills.
This spring, VW and state official said they were upgrading the training initiative to an associate degree-granting program.
The new course work added classes in science, technology, engineering, math and language arts. The cost rose then about $1,000 to $11,000, according to Chattanooga State officials. But VW puts in about $460 per semester and Pell grants help most students pick up much if not the rest of the price tag, they said at the time.
Martina Stellmaszek, chief executive of the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S., said that such a dual education system is common in Germany, with two of every three young people taking part. She said youth unemployment in Germany is about 7.9 percent. In the U.S., the jobless rate among Americans ages 16 to 24 is about 16.2 percent.
Andrea Noske, head of science and technology for the German embassy in Washington, D.C., said it's important to train young people in the high-skilled jobs of the future.
"They're the most valuable resources we have," she said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.