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Contributed photo / U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia received a behind-the-scenes look at Volkswagen Chattanooga's apprenticeship program on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia this week checked out apprenticeship efforts at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant, calling them "absolutely" a model other companies can use.

"The concern I hear most frequently from businesses is finding a skilled workforce," he said. "Increasingly, we see companies need to find a way to provide training themselves."

Scalia, in a telephone interview after his Friday visit to the plant where VW has put into place a variety of coronavirus protocols, cited the company's partnerships with Chattanooga State Community College, Hamilton County Schools and other entities.

"From what I saw today, the Volkswagen plant has done a very good job of that," he said.

Scalia, who was appointed labor secretary in September 2019, said young people in the apprenticeship program at VW have a chance to "earn while you learn."

Such programs are "an opportunity to step into good-paying jobs without taking on college debt," he added.

Meanwhile, the labor secretary said the U.S. economy has made "amazing progress" in helping people get back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic. National unemployment is at 6.9%, and he said it took the Obama administration five years to see joblessness under 7%.

Scalia, an attorney and the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said new data show that half of the states are at a 6% or lower unemployment rate.

"There's still work to do," he said. "We want to help people get back to work and help them do it safely."

Also, as coronavirus cases rise in many states, Scalia said there's recognition that widespread lockdowns of the economy are not a solution.

"We know we can open businesses safely," he said, adding that large-scale lockdowns take "a great toll" on workers and families.

At the same time, the labor secretary said the nation needs to stay vigilant about the virus, mentioning the use of masks and the importance of hygiene. He said that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which is under the labor department, puts out guidance related to safety and brings enforcement actions.

Scalia said that vaccines, such as those touted by Pfizer and Moderna, will be "a game-changer."

"Hopefully next month, we'll see people get vaccinated," he said.

Saying the visit to Chattanooga was his first, Scalia said that President Donald Trump has been focused on developing apprenticeship programs around the country.

He talked about a new program that gives state workforce agencies the opportunity to recognize companies that have such exemplary initiatives.

In September, Volkswagen of America received a national presidential award for workforce development training and education with the company cited for its programs at the Chattanooga plant.

The company was one of nine entities receiving the Pledge to America's Workers Presidential Award in recognition of industry-driven programs to train and educate American workers.

Volkswagen of America said its workforce development strategy in the U.S. focuses on engaging local talent, re-calibrating programs to meet future needs and fostering a culture that encourages innovative thinking.

Amanda Plecas, head of communications for VW in Chattanooga, said Scalia received a behind-the-scenes look at the apprenticeship program and learned more about the automaker's workforce development and education initiatives.

"At the Volkswagen Academy, we combine academic studies with on-the-job training," she said. "Our graduating apprentices are well-trained, well-prepared and have the proper skills to seize the opportunities created by the transition to electric vehicle assembly."

The company is investing $800 million in an expansion to build an electric SUV called the ID.4 by 2022, which the automaker has termed "the most important launch for VW since the Beetle."

Also, the German automaker in September recommitted to hiring 1,000 more workers at the Chattanooga factory, which now has 3,800 employees.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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