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Staff photo by Doug Strickland/ Graduates stand with their certificates during a graduation during ceremony at Volkswagen Academy on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This graduating class consisted of seven graduates.

Updated at 5:32 p.m. on Thursday, August 8, 2019, with more information.

This is the model for the future. People across Tennessee are looking at it.
 

Amy Haddock, a kindergarten teacher at a private Christian school for nine years, says she knew it was time to make a move.

Earning little more than minimum wage and without benefits at the school, Haddock read about a program at the Volkswagen Academy that taught how to fix and maintain the complex equipment at the Chattanooga assembly plant.

Haddock, 44, of Ooltewah, on Thursday graduated from the three-year Automation Mechatronics program as its valedictorian.

"It's something I could grow with," she said after a ceremony at the plant.

VW's factory, ramping up to assemble a new SUV and eventually electric vehicles, graduated a new group of eight apprentices who had received hands-on training in mechanical, electricity, electronics and automated systems at the plant.

"This is a milestone in the lives of these talented team members as they take the next steps in their careers with Volkswagen," said Tom du Plessis, CEO of VW's Chattanooga operations.

All the graduates received job offers from VW as well as an associate's degree from Chattanooga State Community College. They'll earn in the $21-an-hour range to start, according to VW. It was the eighth such class to graduate from the program.

Burkhard Ulrich, the plant's senior vice president of human resources, said VW is at the forefront of technology, digitization, electric mobility and autonomous driving.

"We're investing in you," he told the graduates.

Dr. Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State, urged the graduates to express gratitude for blessings and challenges, work hard and keep learning.

"Volkswagen is moving to electric vehicles," she said. "There's always a learning curve."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said that offerings such as the Mechatronics program is "a new model for education" in Tennessee.

"This is the model for the future," he said. "People across Tennessee are looking at it."

The automaker last year tweaked the key training initiative as it keeps up with the technology upgrades the automaker is cramming into its vehicles.

More computer programming, increased hands-on learning in the plant and boosting the daily teaching time will be hallmarks of what's known as the Robotronics Program, said Ilker Subasi, who is overseeing the apprenticeship effort in Chattanooga.

"The complexity in the manufacturing environment is huge," Subasi said. "You need the right people to understand the equipment."

Soon, Volkswagen will start making the Atlas Cross Sport, a five-seat SUV based off of the popular seven-seat Atlas, at the plant.

Also, VW is expected to break ground this year on an $800 million expansion to produce a battery-powered SUV by 2022. The company plans to hire 1,000 more employees.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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