Tennessee joins automaker to create Volkswagen eLabs for area students

$1 million to go to Hamilton County Schools for science labs

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 1/24/17. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Tennessee commissioner of Economic and Community Development Randy Boyd and President and CEO of VW Chattanooga Christian Koch pose with a giant check at Volkswagen Chattanooga after an announcement that VW will partner with the State of Tennessee to establish a $1-million science lab program for Hamilton county middle and high school students while at the Volkswagen Academy and Automation Center on January 24, 2017.

Hamilton County students will learn hands-on engineering skills with the creation of new so-called Volkswagen eLabs in a $1 million effort between the automaker and the state, officials said Tuesday.

"It comes at a critical time as the public schools regain their momentum," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, which will administer the initiative to build the science labs.

County middle and high schools can apply for funds for the labs, which will permit students to access technologies in automated manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, programmable micro-computers and other fields.

No less than 15 labs are to be created in the next couple of years, officials said. Each interested school must raise a minimum of $5,000 annually in cash or contributed materials to ensure the lab is continually refreshed.

Christian Koch, the Chattanooga VW plant's chief executive, said he's hopeful the labs can spark an interest in science among students.

"I look forward to seeing the labs come to life in the near future," he said. "Volkswagen places the highest priority on education at all levels."

Randy Boyd, Tennessee's commissioner for economic and community development, said the state faces a challenge in developing a workforce for the future, especially in manufacturing.

"Tennessee was No. 1 in the U.S. in advanced manufacturing last year," he said. "We're growing. We've got a huge [workforce] need. It's a huge challenge."

Boyd said the state provided the $1 million as part of the package of financial incentives Tennessee offered to woo the German automaker to Chattanooga.

VW could have used the funds in a variety of ways, but along with the state chose to craft the eLabs that will provide equipment and guided learning for students, officials said.

Dr. Kirk Kelly, the Hamilton County Department of Education interim school superintendent, said the schools are helping train the VW factory's future workforce.

He said the labs will help more students access "a world-class innovative education."

County Mayor Jim Coppinger noted the importance of public-private partnerships, adding that VW has given money in the past to educational efforts.

"This is important to us," he said.

Mike Beamish, executive vice president of human resources for Volkswagen Group of America, recalled that he was part of the team that helped pick Tennessee as the site to put the plant in 2008.

"What set Tennessee apart was its can-do attitude," he said.

Challener said the eLabs will make a difference for students and for the county's workforce.

"The eLabs will give our children the skills they need to thrive," he said.

An estimated $577 million of incentives were offered to VW in 2008 from federal, state and local governments to initially convince the German automaker to build in Chattanooga. The VW incentives were among the most generous government aid ever provided for an automotive plant in the United States.

To land the $900 million expansion VW recently completed to build the new Atlas sport utility vehicle, about $166 million in state incentives were targeted for VW. The city and county also earmarked a total of $52.5 million for the project.

The factory has boosted its worker headcount to 2,800 employees in recent months and plans to hit about 3,400 by next spring.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.