Chattanooga's Volkswagen Academy starts high school juniors on path to high-paying jobs

New Mechatronics Akademie program teaches students to operate, repair industrial robots

A group of Mechatronics Akademie students who participated in one of Chip Strickland's (teacher in the back middle) physics sessions this summer.

Pathways online

Find out more about opportunities for youth to pursue a career in manufacturing at Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee’s website,

How Pathways to Prosperity began

In 2011, the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued the Pathways to Prosperity report, highlighting a “skills gap” preventing many young adults from qualifying for work in our country’s critical labor markets. The national response to this report and ensuing discussion among education and business leaders led to the establishment of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration between Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity Project, Jobs for the Future (JFF), and a growing consortium of states across the nation. The goal is to support young people in entering an initial career while leaving open the prospect of further education.Source: Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee

Healthy job growth

Over the next decade, eight of the 10 fastest growing jobs in Tennessee will be in some type of health care or medical field. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the fastest growth rates in employment between 2014 and 2024 among major jobs in the Volunteer State will be:1. Physical therapist assistants, growing at an annual rate of 4.55 percent. The median pay for the 2,330 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $54,320.2. Tax preparers, growing at an annual rate of 4.05 percent. The median pay for the 2,290 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $36,050.3. Physical therapists, growing at an annual rate of 3.95 percent. The median pay for the 4,700 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $83,370.4. Home health aides, growing at an annual rate of 3.9 percent. The median pay for the 12,520 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $18,730.5. Nursing instructors, growing at an annual rate of 3.63 percent. The median pay for the 1,820 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $59,770.6. Nurse practitioners, growing at an annual rate of 3.47 percent. The median pay for the 4,280 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $90,040.7. Market research analysts and marketing specialists, growing 3.45 percent a year. The median pay for the 5,880 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $49,740.8. Veterinary technologist and technicians, growing at an annual rate of 3.29 percent. The median pay for the 1,620 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $28,070.9. Health specialty teachers, growing 3.25 percent a year. The median pay of these college jobs among the 5,100 Tennesseans in this position in 2014 was $71,100.10. Medical secretaries, growing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. The median pay of the 6,390 Tennesseans in this job in 2014 was $27,990.Source: Fastest growing occupations with 1,500 or more jobs from 2014 to 2024.

Instead of going to high school, 27 juniors in Hamilton County will head this fall to the Volkswagen Academy, a training center at Chattanooga's Volkswagen assembly plant.

There, they'll spend two years learning mechatronics, or how to operate and repair industrial robots, through a new program called Mechatronics Akademie. The new Akademie is a big deal, because now it takes students at Chattanooga State Community College three years post-high school to earn a mechatronics degree through the Volkswagen Academy, after which they're ready for high-paying jobs.

The Mechatronics Akademie shaves two years off that, so students who enter it as high school juniors only need to take one year post-high school to get an associates degree, after which they have the potential to earn more than $40,000 a year at age 19 or 20. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median wage for mechatronics jobs is $21.23 an hour.

"Pretty good pay," says David Cowan, the director of vocational education for the Hamilton County Department of Education who helped shepherd the Mechatronics Akademie into existence. "One of the things that I continue to harp on is they come out without a whole lot of debt."

The Mechatronics Akademie is the latest example of a trend in Hamilton County to encourage high school students to seek high-paying industrial jobs without a four-year degree.

Leading the charge is Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee, a three-year-old nonprofit organization that helps connect public school students in Hamilton, Bradley, Marion, and McMinn counties and Cleveland City Schools with hands-on learning opportunities with area manufacturers. Students have been paired with companies in the Chattanooga area, such as Gestamp, Chattem and McKee Foods.

The two "pathways" are advanced manufacturing and information technology.

"It's a great program," says Vicki McGinnis, the Hamilton County Department of Education liaison for the Pathways program. "It's just been a wonderful opportunity for students."

A four-year college degree isn't for everyone, say supporters of vocational education - and neither is sitting in class all day. They point to Europe, where apprenticeships and vocational education are ideas that are accepted and embraced.

"The kids [here] eat it up, because they know they are contributing in the real world," says Annie White, the regional program manager for the Pathways to Prosperity Program of Southeast Tennessee, which is housed in the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers' offices in the EPB Building in downtown Chattanooga.

She praises the Mechatronics Akademie.

"It's the perfect model of what a true Pathway project would look like," White says. "I'm really proud of Hamilton County, because that was something they've been working that for years. Volkswagen is huge and there's a lot of opportunities there."

Modern-day factories can be tidy, clean places, the Pathways program's supporters say. Forget the smokestacks that prompted national TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite to call Chattanooga the U.S.'s dirtiest city in 1968.

"It's nothing like that," McGinnis says. "It's been an eye-opener for a lot of us."

While there was a time when parents might have looked down on an industrial career, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger says, "You can make a really good living in this town in some of these vocations."

'Soft skills important'

Along with technical skills, students in the Pathways program learn "soft skills," McGinnis says.

"Showing up on time, that's a biggie," she says. "That's what we're hearing from businesses: That the kids can't get past the interview because of soft skills."

So Hamilton County's Pathways program has begun to hold mock job interviews with middle school students and coach them in other ways on soft skills.

The 27 students who will attend the inaugural Mechatronics Akademie are from the four high schools closest to the Volkswagen plant: Tyner Academy, Ooltewah, Central and East Hamilton high schools.

"We've got a nice mix of boys, girls, whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians," Cowan says.

He thinks the Mechatronics Akademie is just the start.

"We think it's a model that we can replicate," Cowan says, citing Wacker Polysilicon near Cleveland, Tenn., as another large industrial employer in the area as a possible site to train high school students.

There was excitement during a parent-student organizational meeting about the Mechatronics Akademie.

"The buzz in the room was great," says Cowan, who remembers the excitement of one girl in particular.

"She's like, 'You mean we get to learn about welding? Count me in," he says. "We're looking at kids that really want to work with their hands."