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This story was updated Wednesday, March 4, 2020, at 6:41 p.m. with more information.

With Volkswagen's $800 million Chattanooga plant expansion on track and plans to drastically hike assembly of SUVs, the factory is aiming to hire 600 more employees, officials said Wednesday.

In one of the biggest hiring surges since the plant opened more than a decade ago, the new employees will directly join the automaker rather than first working for a employment contractor.

"We have increased demand for our product," said Tom du Plessis, president and CEO of VW's Chattanooga operations.

He said that it has been since 2009 that VW directly accepted applications for production employees.

Higher sales of its popular seven-seat Atlas SUV, coupled with assembly of the new five-seat Atlas Cross Sport SUV, are leading the German company to bolster hiring, said du Plessis.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Tom du Plessis, CEO at Volkswagen Chattanooga, talks to the media after a recent visit by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee as the company recognized Manufacturing Day in Tennessee.

Also, the plant expansion that's underway is readying VW to build a new battery-powered SUV by 2022 and more employees are needed for that milestone, he said.

"As we continue to grow our Tennessee operation as Volkswagen's North American hub for electric vehicle manufacturing, we must also grow our team," said the Chattanooga CEO.

Volkswagen now employs about 3,800 workers, and the new hires will push the car company well over 4,000 employees in Chattanooga.

Burkhard Ulrich, VW Chattanooga's senior vice president of human resources, said the plant will have about 3,000 production workers when the automaker's latest round of hiring is finished.

Starting wages for the new VW workers will be $19 per hour, more than the recently increased pay rate, as much of the new staff will join second and third shifts.

"It's more because of the shift premium," Ulrich said.

With overtime, bonus and shift differential, production employees can earn about $46 per hour, according to VW. Maintenance workers, those who keep up and fix the plant's equipment, can earn about $58 per hour with off-shift overtime, officials said.

VW is accepting applications beginning March 23 and continuing through the end of June to fill the 600 posts. To sign up for the slots, people can go online to www.wearevolkswagen.com.

Positions will be open in the body, assembly and paint shops as well as in quality and logistics, du Plessis said.

"We're really looking forward to expanding over time," he said.

Over the past decade, VW has worked with employment contractor Aerotek, and those workers have been on the job for six months to a year before becoming direct VW employees. The VW Chattanooga CEO said the automaker is still converting over Aerotek workers to meet demand. Some 57 were converted in February alone to VW employees, he said.

The plant plans to expand its parking lot to make way for the new hires, du Plessis said.

Just last month, the company said that production and maintenance workers will see a pay hike and a new bonus system. The base production wage rate at the plant will rise by $1.50 per hour, from $16 to $17.50, up about 9.4%, according to the automaker.

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

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