VW gears up novel training effort

Travis Wallick says he likes the idea of learning how to work on and repair the high-tech robots and other complex systems at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant.

"It's a great opportunity to work on new technologies," he said during a break in a class at the Volkswagen Academy on Thursday.

Wallick and 19 others are the first students in VW's Automotive Mechatronic Program. Dubbed AMP, the effort is a joint venture between the carmaker and the Tennessee Technology Center at Chattanooga State Community College.

In addition to robotics, the three-year program will teach about electronics, programmable logic controllers, pneumatics and hydraulics, and other systems used in the massive plant that's to start car production early next year.

Hans-Herbert Jagla, VW's executive vice president of human resources in Chattanooga, said the apprenticeship program is off to a solid start.

He said the program is unlike any other in the United States, joining the best of German and American training initiatives, and rotates class time with on-the job training.

While graduates aren't guaranteed a job, they'll have a big leg up if they perform well, Jagla said.

"We want to keep our people as long as possible - 10, 20, 30 years," he said.

Jim Catanzaro, CSCC president, said the program is an example of the "innovative relationship" between the college and VW.

"This is another opportunity to prepare a pool of workers for a sophisticated industry," Catanzaro said.

Gary Booth, manager of training and development for VW in Chattanooga, said AMP is "long-term, forward thinking."

"Students will be challenged over the next three years," he said.

When students are on the job, they'll be paid, officials said. They'll start at $10 an hour then eventually step up to $13 an hour.

Each year, another 20 people will be added to the program, according to VW, with 60 in the initiative at one time. Grants cover the cost of the program for students, the automaker said.

Jagla said that building cars at VW is more an art than a job.

* Three-year program* 2,025 lab/classroom hours of instruction per per student* 2,880 hours on the jobSource: Volkswagen

"Our work force has to be precise and striving for perfection," he said.

The $1 billion plant is to employ over 2,000 people. A new midsize sedan is slated for production at the factory.