of the world’s largest automakers has stepped into the fringe of
American education. Volkswagen has imported its German-style
apprenticeship program to the U.S., and American labor officials hope it
might become a model.
“It’s a totally different
mindset. It’s a totally different culture,” says Ilker Subasi, who heads
the Volkswagen Academy on site at the company’s Chattanooga plant.
Subasi sees a stigma in the
U.S. against technical education. But in Germany, more than half of high
school graduates go into vocational programs like VW’s. Subasi himself
was once a VW apprentice. Once accepted, the company’s
U.S. “mechatronics” students earn a small stipend over the course of
three years while learning how to maintain robotics. If they stick with
the program, they’re 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 German auto plants around the world.
“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.
“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.”
The VW school is heavily
subsidized by the state of Tennessee as part of an incentive package to
bring the automaker to the state in 2009. A stadium-sized building
beside the plant that builds the Passat houses the classroom space and
Inside, a robotic arm two
stories tall swings through the air, as a student practices programming
machines like the ones used next door. Michael Regan says he tried a
year of community college before applying.
“You know, I was never that
really into writing and all of that,” he says. “I’m not that big of a
writer. I was just always more of a hands-on person. That’s just how I
learn better.” At Regan’s graduation, a top executive told the dozen students he hopes they will ultimately retire with VW.
Some graduates are taking the
option to spend a year working at a German plant. Others are deferring
their job to finish a four-year degree. Regan starts work immediately –
albeit on the night shift. “Look at the benefits and the
future he has with this company,” says Regan’s mom, Sharon. “And that’s
why you go to college is to work for a big company – most people – to
make a good living and have good benefits. And he’s going to have all that -- at