published Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Volkswagen mechatronics grads get diplomas

Graduates of the 2014 automation mechatronics program from the Volkswagen Academy, seen on the front row, are recognized at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant
Wednesday in Chattanooga.
Graduates of the 2014 automation mechatronics program from the Volkswagen Academy, seen on the front row, are recognized at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant Wednesday in Chattanooga.
Photo by John Rawlston.
  • photo
    Amy Mitchum is congratulated by Sebastian Patta, executive vice president of human resources at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, left, and Martina Stellmaszek, president and CEO of the German American Chamber of Commerce in Chattanooga.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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Volkswagen Chattanooga plans to launch an “Engineering Specialist Training” program.

Requirement: bachelor’s degree.

The program: 18 months program, including hands-on training and three months at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Brian Burton worked in banking. Amy Mitchum had an office job in the real estate industry.

Repairing robots wasn’t an obvious career for either of them.

But on Wednesday, Burton stood as salutatorian for the second graduating class of Volkswagen Chattanooga’s Automation Mechatronics Program. Mitchum was the class’s sole female graduate.

“I got over a lot of fears,” said Mitchum, 37, of Chattanooga. Namely, mastering the manual demands — welding, for example — that her upcoming job as a skilled team member requires.

All of Volkswagen Academy’s 13 graduates start work at the plant on Friday.

Dignitaries and lawmakers were part of the diploma ceremony. University deans are known to dole out degrees, but it’s not the norm for mayors to anoint newly minted graduates.

That goes to show how much the VW plant and its massive production team help keep Chattanooga’s economy chugging, not to mention Hamilton County and Tennessee.

“Finding skilled workers is a top challenge,” said Hermann Nehls, attaché for labor issues for the German Embassy. “It’s not enough to focus on academic skills … if we want to expand manufacturing.”

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., were on hand for the graduation. So was Garfield Garner, regional director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship.

“Apprenticeship has a thousand occupations,” Garner said. “It used to be thought to be just the construction industry.”

Apprenticeship is a hallmark of the Volkswagen Academy. It trains technicians in some of the most complex jobs at the assembly plant.

Mechatronics is a combination of mechanical engineering, electronics and computer-controlled processes. The auto maker’s three-year Chattanooga training program is identical to its program in Germany, which focuses on a dual-education system. That system pairs vocational classroom education and paid on-the-job training. Using their hands as much as their minds, students learn the ins and outs of mechanical and automated systems, electricity, electronics and machining.

Students’ cost for the Volkswagen Academy is minimal because they’re paid about $30,000 during four on-the-job semesters.

Graduates earn a mouthful of a degree: an Associate of Applied Science in systems engineering technology with a concentration in mechatronics systems. Volkswagen partners with Chattanooga State Community College for the program. Graduates’ starting pay at the plant averages to $22.50 an hour, or $46,800 a year. That doesn’t include bonuses they could get. Pay can increase to at least $30 an hour.

Soon, graduates should be stepping out of a new VW program.

During Wednesday’s ceremony, Volkswagen Chattanooga President and CEO Christian Koch announced the creation of an “Engineering Specialist Training” program, this one aimed at those who’ve earned a bachelor’s degree. Like mechatronics, the 18-month program will use hands-on experience. It also includes three months at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

This year’s mechatronics graduates seemed unfazed by that. They were thinking more of what they had learned and what lay ahead of them: new skills to be put to use in a new line of work. The program also imparted the practical. For Burton that easily came to mind.

“They push a lot of organization,” the 30-year-old from Cleveland said. “So that helps me at home, too.”

Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at mmalek@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406.

about Mitra Malek...

Mitra Malek writes about business, with a focus on the Chattanooga area's tech, small business and entrepreneurial communities, as well as tourism. Before coming to the Times Free Press, she was a staff writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tampa Bay Business Journal, Journal Inquirer and Palm Beach Post. She has covered local and national politics, government, international trade, a state cancer cluster investigation and real estate growth and economic development, among other subjects. Her reporting ...

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