Across the country, more than 530,000 people are chasing the dream of a career through an apprenticeship program. These programs combine on-the-job training with classroom work to help enable tech-focused workers to graduate with in-demand skills – and often, a job offer waiting for them.
The Volkswagen Apprenticeship Program began at the Chattanooga plant in 2010, training workers who graduate certified to work in any Volkswagen plant worldwide. To mark National Apprenticeship Week, we asked Ilker Subasi, the assistant manager of technical training at Volkswagen Chattanooga, to explain the history of the VW Apprenticeship program, its impact on the local community and what recent program updates mean for the program’s future.
How did the Apprenticeship Program get started? Why the need?
The decision to train apprentices in Chattanooga came before Volkswagen had even started building the plant. We identified that skilled maintenance technicians were scarce in the United States, especially in the Chattanooga region. And, since Volkswagen runs many successful apprenticeship programs in Germany and around the world, it made sense to bring the knowledge and capabilities to Volkswagen Chattanooga.
The apprenticeship program is seen as the basis for qualifying and developing skilled workers on a long-term basis and aims to train workers to Volkswagen standards, helping to ensure the company could fill the anticipated open positions with skilled workers. Upon graduation, the apprentices can start working in the plant immediately and are already familiar with the Volkswagen culture, expectations and technical equipment.
How many applications do you get each year? How many apprentices have graduated?
We have seen a steady increase of applications over the years. This year we received almost 200 applications for 24 open apprenticeship positions. The process of reviewing all applications and interviewing candidates takes about six months.
Since 2013, 95 apprentices have graduated from the Mechatronics Program. Graduates receive a Volkswagen Group Academy Diploma, which certifies that they have received factory training according to global Volkswagen standards. Graduates also receive an Associate Applied Science Degree in Engineering Technologies from the local college. All graduates are also eligible to be placed in positions in the Chattanooga Plant.
How large is the average class and what is a normal day like for apprentices?
Each year, 24 new students, divided into two classes of 12, start the program. This creates a good learning environment and allows for ideal mentoring from the instructors.
The program’s dual apprenticeship structure means learning through a combination of hands-on experiences and theory. During their semesters in the Academy, apprentices spend 80 percent of their time doing hands-on equipment training, which resembles work they would do in the Plant. The remaining 20 percent of their time is spent learning the complementing theoretical content.
Additionally, students spend three semesters completing on-the-job training in different departments on the Volkswagen Chattanooga shop floor where they are introduced to the production environment, can use their acquired skills and can start building relationships within their future workplace.
What concentrations does the current program offer students?
Currently, the program offers Robotronics, which is a combination of robotics, troubleshooting, IT programming and maintenance.
This past August, Volkswagen announced the relaunch of the Apprenticeship Program which was the most comprehensive update since the program started in 2010. What did you change?
The shift in the industry and changes in technology across car manufacturing has influenced the qualifications that skilled team members need to excel in their positions. The new Robotronics apprenticeship program is a reaction to these circumstances and the new content is designed to help ensure that graduates have the right qualifications and can be prepared for the changing manufacturing environment. Program updates include a shift from mechanical to robotic training, which is becoming increasingly important in manufacturing.
What benefits do graduates have entering the next phase of their careers? Are they guaranteed a job upon graduation?
Graduates start their positions already familiar with the company culture, technical equipment and department environment. The apprenticeship has taught them up-to-date technical skills, which is why all graduates are guaranteed a job offer in the Plant. In addition, graduates may take part in programs called “Wanderjahre,” an international assignment opportunity to work in a different Volkswagen plant anywhere in the world for a year.
This past May the High School Mechatronics Akademie held their first graduation, and 11 of those students chose to continue their training and become Volkswagen Robotronics Apprentices. Can you talk a little about the importance of this program to the Academy?
The high school program at the Academy offers students, who are interested in hands-on learning and technical subjects, the opportunity to complete their last two years of high school at the Academy, working on state-of-the-art technical equipment, getting to know the Volkswagen culture and earning over 40 credit hours towards a college education. If they enjoy this learning environment and are interested in Robotronics, we hope they apply for the Volkswagen Chattanooga Robotronics Program. We fill many of our apprenticeship positions with these individuals who already bring commitment and passion to the company.
How have you seen the program impact the local Chattanooga community?
By offering an apprenticeship program that trains skilled workers in the technical field, Volkswagen helps support the local workforce development. The program has not only resulted in individuals starting careers in manufacturing, but has also led to other companies in the region now offering similar apprenticeship programs as a result of the success at the Volkswagen Academy.
As an Apprenticeship Program graduate, how did the program affect your life and professional career?
I started my own career as an apprentice at Volkswagen in Germany 20 years ago. Just like our apprentices here, I got to know the Volkswagen standards, culture and was taught valuable, professional skills in a modern, hands-on learning environment. The culture and mindset that I learned during those three years have stayed with me throughout my career at Volkswagen.
Building on the content of my apprenticeship, I successfully obtained two Master’s Degrees in mechanical/electrical engineering and teaching. In 2010 I was sent to Chattanooga to design and build the dual apprenticeship program, again being able to utilize my own experience. Now, I am managing the apprenticeship program as well the technical training needs across Volkswagen Chattanooga.