Volkswagen is jump-starting its new Chattanooga-based engineering and planning center, which its officials termed the first of its kind in the South for an automaker.
"What we're doing a little bit here is pioneering work," said Dr. Matthias Erb, who is overseeing the startup of the facility for the German automaker.
Hiring has started for about 130 engineers and technicians who are to work at the center by 2017, Erb said. Move-in will begin next week at a vacant building near the VW assembly plant that will temporarily house the center, the VW Group of America executive vice president said.
Around 2017, VW wants to operate the center in a new structure built near the plant. Erb said it is too early to say how big the structure may be or how much it would cost, but the site could have its own vehicle test track and crash facility.
Volkswagen is hiring automotive engineers, technicians and office staff for its engineering and planning center at Enterprise South Industrial Park. Candidates can go to volkswagengroupamerica.com.
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Plans eventually are to hire at least 200 engineers and technicians, which he hopes will centralize VW's engineering and planning in North America.
VW now has six locations in the U.S. and one in Mexico where it has design and technical centers, a research lab and other similar operations. The Chattanooga site will coordinate that work in the future.
"We'll be moving over research and development functions," Erb said during a news conference at the plant. "This will be the central entity in all the U.S., and hopefully all of North America."
Erb also said officials would like the new facility to centralize VW's activities with universities nationwide.
He said most of the planning, engineering and research and development operations for automakers in the U.S. is based in Michigan and Ohio.
With the opening of VW's Chattanooga center, Erb foresees auto parts suppliers bringing more of their R&D work to the area as well.
"This is a huge commitment to the market," he said.
The biggest challenge for the company is finding "human capital" to staff the center, Erb said. VW will be hiring design, electrical and mechanical engineers.
He expects both local and out-of-state universities to help feed the job pool.
Plant spokeswoman Catharina Mett said that, while there are a lot of good colleges in the area, VW won't find everyone it needs here.
VW announced the engineering and planning center last summer as part of the $900 million expansion at its Chattanooga plant to build a new midsize sport utility vehicle. It already plans to hire 2,000 more workers in Chattanooga to help build that vehicle.
Gov. Bill Haslam said then that Tennessee is known for manufacturing autos but it hasn't seen establishment of research and development.
"It's a new day in Tennessee in terms of innovation," he said regarding VW's new research facility.
Erb said the center will reduce the time it takes for the automaker to bring vehicles to the North American market. Also, the facility will enable VW to react quicker to customers' needs.
Early on, the center will focus on engineering support for the Chattanooga Passat sedan and the new SUV that VW is committed to launching in late 2016. Erb said the center in the mid-term will develop VW body styles based on a new standardized assembly platform.
The center's future will depend on the success of its startup phase, Erb said, as well as on support from state and local government.
VW officially started work on its plant expansion in January to increase the plant's size by more than 500,000 square feet.
Today, the company will seek approval from a city panel to add another 130,153 square feet to the factory expansion in order to increase its body shop. That will boost the size of the original plant expansion by about 25 percent, costing nearly $18 million more, the company said.
VW plant spokesman Scott Wilson said the company has chosen "to exercise the financially responsible option to increase the size of the body shop expansion now to accommodate current and future production needs."
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