VW Chattanooga electric vehicle assembly sparks workforce training

Staff Photo by Mike Pare / Ooltewah High School student Anthony Anglemyer, center, listens to Charles Beck, right, of Chattanooga State Community College, talk about programs at the Volkswagen Academy on Thursday. At left are Anthony's parents, Frank and Arianna Anglemyer.

Erica Bell said she came from Martin, Tennessee, this week for a firsthand look at Chattanooga's Volkswagen Academy, which showed off a pair of educational initiatives to potential students and their parents.

Bell, the mother of a 15-year-old, said that West Tennessee doesn't have anything like what the academy could provide to her daughter.

Volkswagen on Thursday offered hands-on tours both for its Mechatronics Akademie, a partnership between Chattanooga State Community College, Hamilton County Schools, and VW, as well at its Robotronics Technology Apprenticeship Program, from which graduates can earn a conditional job offer from the automaker.

Steffi Wegener, assistant manager of training and development for VW in Chattanooga, said in an interview that the programs are "a wonderful talent pipeline" for the company.

She said that as Volkswagen makes the transition from building conventionally powered autos to more electric vehicles, the programs are expanding and growing.

"We need more and more people with that skill set in the future," she said. "We're not going anywhere. We're only going further down the path of electrification."

Wegener said plans are to double the number of high school students in the Mechatronics Akademie starting next school year from 24 to 50.

"We're going to double it, and next year, go even further than that," Wegener said.

She said that workforce development has been a topic for VW since day one in Chattanooga, where its assembly plant produces a battery-powered SUV and two other SUVs with conventional engines.

"That's ingrained in our business," Wegener said.

The Akademie blends high school, dual credit and dual enrollment courses for juniors and seniors, according to officials. Mechatronics focuses on the engineering of both electrical and mechanical systems, and also includes a combination of robotics, electronics, computer, telecommunications, systems, control and product engineering.

Also, Wegener said plans are to grow the Robotronics Technology Apprenticeship Program, which is a post-high school effort. The full-time, dual-education program combines vocational classroom and paid on-the-job training, officials said. Graduates of the two-year program receive a Volkswagen Academy certificate, an Associate of Applied Science in mechatronics technology degree with a robotronics certificate from Chattanooga State and a conditional job offer at VW.

Valentina Hoffman, a student at Collegiate High in Chattanooga who was checking out the offerings at VW, said she's interested in mechanical engineering.

"I like a challenge," she said in an interview. "I think this would be rigorous."

Eventually working for VW is a potential outcome, Hoffman said.

"I'm looking at all the options," she said.

Anthony Anglemyer, who attends Ooltewah High School, said he has always expressed an interest in engineering.

He said in an interview that the idea of working at VW in the future is "on the table."

Wegener said students in the academy's programs have shown that there's a next generation who are energetic, engaged and successful, and can go from high school to an apprenticeship and then to the workforce.

"They make excellent employees," she said.

In October, Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant officially rolled out its all-electric ID.4 SUV. This year, the plant is expected to build about 90,000 of the EVs, in addition to the conventional Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs.

Volkswagen had invested $800 million to ready the factory to produce EVs, including a battery-pack assembly shop and a battery engineering lab. The plant hired about 1,200 more employees to meet production levels and go to a third shift, putting its headcount at more than 4,700 workers.

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