Volkswagen is facing what company officials call the “stigma” of vocational education and the American conventional wisdom that the pathway to a good job runs through a four-year college. The automaker has been pulling teenagers off the traditional American track for its German-style apprenticeship program in Chattanooga.
Once accepted, the company’s “mechatronics” students earn a small stipend over the course of three years while learning how to maintain robotics in VW’s only U.S. plant. If they stick with the program, they are hired with a starting salary of $22 an hour. They also earn an associate’s degree from Chattanooga State Community College and a DIHK certification from the German American Chamber of Commerce, which would allow them to work at auto plants in Germany.
“At first, I was like, ‘Am I going to be pushing around a broom? Am I going to be changing light bulbs?'” recalls Alex Bizzell, a 22-year-old who graduated last week from the Volkswagen Academy. “It’s been a substantial effort to do it, but now I know exactly what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
On Wednesday, dignitaries from Germany and Tennessee attended a graduation complete with the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Top labor officials are hoping the VW program – which is heavily subsidized by the state of Tennessee – could become a model around the U.S., where manufacturers often complain that the workforce doesn’t have the right hi-tech skills.
Ilker Subasi leads the Volkswagen Academy, which mirrors apprenticeship programs that are commonplace in Germany.
“We don’t expect any experience because we want to train them for our needs,” Subasi says. “I don’t think there is a skills gap. There’s a training gap. The people are there. They’re looking for jobs. It’s just a training gap.”
Unlike Germany, where more than half of high school graduates go into vocational education, Subasi says he’s found resistance to technical training for high school graduates. He points out that the U.S. has a much higher rate of youth unemployment than Germany, even those with college degrees.
“A lot of my buddies who have graduated [from college] are still working minimum wage jobs, looking for their jobs,” says VW Academy grad Michael Regan, who begins working full-time for Volkswagen on Thursday.
VW Academy grads can either start work immediately or defer for two years to finish a bachelor’s degree. Students also have the opportunity to spend a year working at a VW plant in Germany to get international experience.
Even plant manager Christian Koch went through VW’s apprenticeship program as a teenager. “I did it from 1979 to 1982,” he said.
At graduation, a VW executive told the class he hoped they would one day retire from the company after a long career.