Mentoring the next generation of auto workers

The United States faces a serious skills gap, especially in manufacturing and information technology, which has pushed employers to find new ways of recruiting, training and retaining highly skilled talent.

One solution: Paid apprenticeships, which combine classroom instruction with hands-on learning for skilled workers. Since 2010, the Volkswagen Group Academy’s Apprenticeship Program at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant has mentored, coached and trained nearly 100 apprentices. The Academy currently has more than 40 apprentices in three cohorts in the program and recently welcomed 16 new students.

Apprentices are paid during their apprenticeship, guided by mentors, earn an associate’s degree and are offered a conditional job offer at Volkswagen upon successful completion of the program. Through the program, they have access to skills-based classroom learning, hands-on instruction and on-the-job training on mechanical systems, electronics, automated systems, big data, and emerging technologies, such as programming and robotics.

In honor of National Apprenticeship Week, we asked Mikala Hughes, a current apprentice, and William Serne, a recent graduate of the program, to share about their experiences in the Academy’s apprenticeship program.


Mikala Hughes, a current apprentice who joined Volkswagen’s apprenticeship program in August 2019:

What made you want to join Volkswagen’s apprenticeship program?

Before I started the program, I was working in a job but didn’t see myself advancing any further, so I started looking for local opportunities in the Chattanooga area and stumbled across this apprenticeship. I’m from Flat Rock, Ala., so I moved to Chattanooga for the program.

With robotics growing as quickly as it is, I thought it would be a good field to go into because it can be in demand with jobs. I believe Robotics is going up from here and that working with robots can mean job security.

What are you hoping to gain through the apprenticeship?

Hands-on experience. I did not have any technical training or related experience prior to this program; I didn’t even take a shop class in high school. I’m currently in a machining class, and we’re working on a vise project, which is a required project for every class of apprentices. We work in groups of three and use each type of machine in the shop to construct a piece of steel into a vise that’s usable.

What are you looking forward to learning or experiencing the most?

I’m really looking forward to the on-the-job training when we get to go into the plant to work with and shadow the employees on the shop floor. I feel like that’s something special this program offers and can further enhance the classroom learning. There are some things that are hard to comprehend if you can’t see, touch or build it. I’m also looking forward to working with robots!


William Serne, a former apprentice and current equipment operator at Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant: 

What made you want to join Volkswagen’s apprenticeship program?

After earning my bachelor’s degree, I couldn’t find a job that I really enjoyed. I lived in Florida at the time and while visiting family in Chattanooga one weekend, they mentioned the Volkswagen apprenticeship program. It was a really good opportunity to learn technical skills in an industry that I could turn into a lasting career.

What were the most valuable skills and lessons you learned through the apprenticeship?

I would say robotics and programmable logic controllers. I use those at work every day.

I love working with robots the most. I was able to really invest in that and learn a lot during my time in the program. In my last semester, I worked on a project to replace a motor and a robot RV, a mechanical joint that allows the robot’s arm to bend. We took apart a robot, diagnosed the problem, replaced the faulty parts with new ones, and tested it to ensure it was good to be out on the production line.

Do you feel like the apprenticeship helped prepare you for your role after graduation?

Yes, what helped me the most was on-the-job training. Half of the program is on-the-job training, where you go to the plant and work side-by-side with people on the job. You spend all day learning and asking questions. That’s the biggest thing that prepared me for the job – experiencing what a day is like on the plant floor through guided immersion.