If Chattanooga's hopes for enticing Volkswagen to build a new model here still appeared Monday to be up in the air, it's not for a lack of trying.
Tennessee's political leaders and Chamber of Commerce officials charged with wooing the global auto giant began hounding the trail for a second model even before VW delivered the first Chattanooga-made Passat to dealers. A local delegation went to Detroit in recent days to reconfirm their commitment as VW unveiled a concept for a new, mid-sized SUV for the North American market that will likely be built somewhere in the United States or Mexico. Another delegation will soon travel to Germany again to continue that pursuit.
They could hardly do more. Except for one thing: Bring more pressure on local educators and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to commit to development of a German-style technical/industrial education curriculum -- beginning in high school and running through advanced training at the college level -- to deliver an ample supply of highly qualified workers.
True, Chattanooga State Community College has developed a good program for key workers in collaboration with VW, as it has for Alstom and other manufacturers. State and local officials also have been exceedingly generous in granting tax abatement incentives for VW, as they have for a range of other new or expanding businesses. The state/local incentive package to lure VW to Chattanooga in mid-2008 was a mega-deal: $572 million, then a national record for an incentive package for an auto company.
That package provided $238.4 million in local PILOT incentives, which defer local property taxes except for the school tax. The balance came from state deferments of business taxes for a specified period of years. The agreement served to lure, without tax abatement, 18 area supplier plants for Volks-wagen. These agreements resulted in 3,300 jobs at VW and another 1,500 at the supplier plants.
It has become clear since then, however, that competition with other cities for new plants, plant expansions and jobs is, if anything, even more intense than in the past; and that VW and other plants want and need a broader supply of well-educated workers here. Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments simply cannot relax and expect good things to happen while they're on automatic pilot.
A recent Chamber survey, informally called Chattanooga IQ, validates this view. The study found, as this paper's Mike Pare reported last week, that more than half of the Chattanooga companies surveyed plan expansions over the next three years that could add up to 1,200 new jobs and $130 million in new investment. But it also found that the key shortcomings that stifle growth involve education and workforce training.
VW officials, in fact, have candidly acknowledged that they have had to advertise certain types of jobs nationwide in order to find qualified applicants. They also have had to appeal locally for additional candidates for their apprentice program at CSCC. Several plant officials, in fact, met with this paper's editorial board last fall to advocate for a state-backed technical/industrial curriculum, hopefully with the governor's support, that would begin in high school and continue on graduation at a higher level, combining classroom work with on-site work as an intern.
VW is not alone in aiming for a better supply of qualified workers. Other companies, some located here, some elsewhere, have pointed out educational deficiencies here and across the South, as compared to other U.S. states -- and other countries -- with higher levels of academic achievement.
The education issue works as well in the South as a wedge issue for competitor cities on the hunt for job growth. Huntsville, Knoxville and Nashville, for example, have all committed to bolstering job growth by offering high educational standards and quality of life.
Despite such stiff competition, there seems to be little urgency here among county government and school board leaders for intergovernmental collaboration with the city, and in behalf of vigorous, innovative programs that would bolster educational achievement among all levels of students here. Both issues are on the business world's radar. School officials and county government need to respond. There's a lot more than new VW jobs at stake.