Amid hundreds of newly hired employees wearing blue and white, top Volkswagen officials Friday marked a milestone in the raising of its Chattanooga plant with the opening of a $40 million training center.
The sparkling new center -- dubbed Volkswagen Academy and the first of the major buildings on VW's sprawling manufacturing campus to be finished -- was termed the gateway to its assembly plant and a model for future auto factories.
"It's the top," said Horst Neumann, a member of the German automaker's board of management who oversees VW's human resources worldwide. "It's very modern, clean and well-equipped."
About 1,000 people crowded into the Volkswagen Academy's conference center -- one of five parts of the 163,000-square-foot education facility -- where they encountered music and a modern dance routine. Later, a daytime minifireworks show capped the dedication of the site designed to educate what VW officials call a world-class team of employees.
"This is proof Tennessee is competitive on a global scale," said Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive, while he toured the facility.
The center houses what VW officials said is the latest equipment and tools to teach an expected work force of 2,000 to produce a midsize sedan new to the American market starting early next year.
Officials said, for example, the academy will offer workers hands-on training on the complex robots that will fill the assembly plant by the hundreds.
Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, said construction of the $1 billion production plant remains on schedule and the assembly of the first prototype vehicle at the factory was recently completed.
"I heard the sound of the car moving by itself," Mr. Fischer quipped.
Hans-Herbert Jagla, VW's executive vice president of human resources in Chattanooga, said the company wants "the most highly skilled and educated work force" to makes its cars.
About 750 workers have been hired so far, and about 1,300 are to be on board by year's end, officials have said.
"We are people powered," Mr. Jagla said. "Teamwork is the foundation of all we do."
Matt Kisber, Tennessee's economic and community development commissioner, said the state-funded training center is "fabulous."
"This is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come," he said.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield recalled he has tools in his home workshop that he used to tinker with VWs in the 1960s.
"Those tools no longer fit," he said. "Technology requires us to change as individuals. You can't face tomorrow with yesterday's tools."
BY THE NUMBERS
* Cost: $40 million
* Size: 163,000 square feet
* Classrooms: 19
* Employees: 24 (10 VW; 13 Chattanooga State; one state)
* Apprentice: machining, welding, electricity lab
* Automation: robotics, controllers, programmable logic
* Automotive: paint booth, quality lab, diagnostic
* Lean: production system labs, fundamental skills
* Conference: team meetings, community events
Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey directly addressed the company's new workers, who surrounded officials during the ceremony, saying a lot of Chattanooga's future depends on them.
"I ask you to build the very best product you can," he said. "A lot of other people need jobs just like you do."
Mr. Ramsey renewed his call for educating Hamilton County youth to fill future jobs.
Mr. Jagla said the Volkswagen center also features classroom training and combines it with the professional expertise and practical experience needed in the auto industry.
He said VW is cooperating with Chattanooga State Community College, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Tennessee Tech.
"This allows young talent to be enthralled with Volkswagen early on," Mr. Jagla said.
People who toured the facility said they were impressed.
"It's first-class," said Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern. "You have to be first-class to build a first-class car."
Chattanooga attorney Rick Hitchcock said the training center is "focused on the future and what that means. It's world class."
Mr. Neumann said the Chattanooga plant is at the heart of its "American strategy" to nearly triple sales to 1 million vehicles by 2018.
"The factory is extremely important to us," he said, telling workers to "keep up the good work."