• Open houses are slated at the Volkswagen Academy on March 20 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; March 21 from 5:30-8 p.m.; April 18, 5:30-8 p.m.
• Go to www.ChattanoogaState.edu, then click on the Volkswagen Academy button on the main page
Miranda Comstock served in the military for eight years, but by the time she returned to civilian life the economy had turned sour.
So when the Trenton, Ga., woman learned about Volkswagen's initiative to train people to work on the Chattanooga plant's complex equipment, she said she jumped on board more than two years ago.
On Friday, VW officials said they're upgrading the effort for new trainees to make the three-year initiative an associate degree-granting program.
"We want employees to build a career," said Sebastian Patta, vice president of human resources for VW in Chattanooga.
The degree, offered through VW's partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, is for the automation mechatronics program, in which Comstock is training, and car mechatronics, which focuses more on automotive systems.
The new course work will add classes in science, technology, engineering, math and language arts, officials said.
Jim Barrott, CSCC's vice president for technology, said that adding general education classes broadens and deepens critical thinking skills.
"We'll continue to produce world-class technicians," he said.
The cost will rise about $1,000 to $11,000, Barrott said. 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, he said. The students also receive pay when they're out of the classroom and doing on-the-job training, officials said.
VW and CSCC are close to seeing the programs' first graduates after nearly three years, and they'll receive technical diplomas rather than a degree. When they're hired at the plant, they'll start at about $22.50 per hour or higher, which is much better than the $15-an-hour wage for a new assembly-line worker, officials said.
Currently, there are 51 students in AMP, including Comstock, and 10 in CMP. This year, 36 students will be added to the programs. The application period runs to April 30.
Phillip Slocum, who has been in the automation program for about a year, said he's working with cutting-edge technology.
"This is definitely a career path," the 31-year-old man said. "VW is here to stay."
Ryan Whary, 27, of Chattanooga, said not everyone is built to sit in a cubicle all day at work.
"We want to use our hands to do stuff," said the AMP trainee.
Brandon Crabtree, 18, of Hixson, who is in his first year in the automation program, said 70 percent of the training is hands-on.
"I love it," he said, adding that "You've got to be ready to work."