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Staff photo by John Rawlston/Dr. Matthias Erb, an executive vice president for Volkswagen Group of America, says he'd like to see the new engineering and planning center in Chattanooga up to 130 people by year's end.
You have prototypes that nobody should see, and so on. This is the reason why you have to somehow keep it close to other entities.

Volkswagen's new engineering and planning center in Chattanooga is up to about 50 people, nearly all of them engineers, and more hiring is in the pipeline.

Dr. Matthias Erb, who heads the center, said Tuesday he'd like to see up to 130 people "as fast as possible" working at the facility that officials have termed the first-of-its-kind in the South for a carmaker.

"I would be happy to see most of them perhaps by the end of this year," he said.

While VW has said it plans to hire 200 workers for its North American center, it doesn't currently have space in the temporary facility it's now using off Discovery Drive near the VW assembly plant, Erb said.

He said there are internal discussions about how to house the future personnel, and any facility holding the center would need to be close to the factory.

"You have prototypes that nobody should see, and so on," said the Volkswagen Group of America executive vice president. "This is the reason why you have to somehow keep it close to other entities."

While there has been talk of building a related test track and a crash testing facility, those potential additions are longterm if they are built, Erb said.

"Our first concern is to really ramp this entity up to a kind of skill level that is needed to fulfill the tasks we have. From there, hopefully we can move on," he said.

The center was seen by Chattanooga officials as the coup for the area when VW unveiled its $900 million plant expansion last year. Most of the planning, engineering and research and development operations for automakers in the U.S. is based in Michigan and Ohio.

VW has said the center will help VW react faster to the needs of U.S. customers by working on vehicle concept development, local product decisions, and interior and exterior design. The facility is also designed to help VW shorten its product life cycle so vehicles can be brought to the U.S. market faster.

Erb said the center should help woo consultants here who are helping develop vehicles.

"It brings more engineers to the area," he said.

In addition, the center should help in source vehicle parts locally from suppliers.

"Sooner or later, if you're developing things here, you'll have the suppliers as well — more often on site — because you need this close relationship," Erb said.

Of the people hired to work at the center so far, he said some of them are from the area.

VW spokesman Scott Wilson said that some early hires were already working for the automaker and moved to the center.

"Some of these initial ones were already here and they shifted" to the center, he said.

Erb said the center is receiving employment applications from as far away as California and Michigan. VW officials declined to say how much center employees earn.

"Whatever it is, it spends better in Tennessee than it does in Michigan," Wilson said. "Housing is more affordable."

VW plans to start building a new sport utility vehicle for the U.S. market starting late next year. It plans to hire 2,000 more people at the plant.

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

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