CHATTANOOGA, TN – The careers of blue-collar workers in the U.S auto industry traditionally have revolved around their plant; they punched a clock, learned new skills, made some friends, weathered cyclical layoffs and hoped their factory wasn’t targeted for closing.

If they worked for General Motors, Ford or Chrysler and their plant did close, they often were transferred to another facility. But, as the phrase "GM Gypsies" suggests, moving on or around often was viewed as a burden because it meant losing seniority needed for better job assignments.

However, the industry is on the cusp of a new era, as Volkswagen introduces a new training model that broadens its time-honored program in keeping with the auto maker’s global ambitions.

The revised apprenticeship program provides young skilled workers in the U.S. and in other parts of the world stable, long-term jobs with excellent compensation.

Aspiring skilled workers now have the opportunity to request assignments in plants outside their home country, as well as earn a bachelor's degree in engineering, which provides additional employment opportunities or other degrees, including a master’s in business administration, to prepare them for careers as supervisors and managers within the company's automotive empire.

Ilker Subasi, 30, started as an apprentice at the auto maker in Germany while still in his teens. After completing the original program, he earned an engineering degree that led to other assignments and then was dispatched to the U.S.

As assistant manager of technical training, Subasi is responsible for helping train American workers hired to staff VW’s new factory here.

The curriculum for the U.S. apprenticeship program includes a mix of classroom work and on-the-job training for which students are paid, Subasi says. The basic program is a combination of mechanical skills and electronics.  

VW also stresses on-the-job safety. "Everyone can buy the same equipment," he says during a tour of the auto maker’s $40 million training facility, which was built by the State of Tennessee. "The secret is having the right people with the right skills and the right training."

In an effort to make sure the apprenticeship program lines up with degree-granting programs in the U.S., the auto maker strengthened the theoretical side of its program with the recruitment of Joe Russell, a former professor of electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University in Pomona, CA, who serves as the lead classroom instructor.

Russell says he stresses practical experiments in the curriculum, which he designed for VW. “Seventy percent of what (apprentices) do is hands-on and 30% is theoretical."

In order to graduate, VW apprentices must pass a rigorous battery of tests to obtain their certifications, including one that signifies they are prepared to work at the auto maker’s plants in Germany. 

The recent class of 24 apprentices recruited from among 100 applicants will earn a 2-year degree from Chattanooga State Community College, Russell says, noting VW puts an emphasis on lifelong learning.

Two members of the first class of 13 graduates already have asked for a 1-year "wanderjahre" assignment in Germany. While new to plant workers, overseas assignments long have been a regular feature for salaried managers and junior executives in the auto industry, particularly those on the fast track for promotion.

"I plan to travel and to gain as much knowledge as possible to advance in the company," says Brandon Adams, one of the two workers moving to Germany for a year. The other graduates have been placed in skilled jobs inside the Chattanooga plant.

The 3-year apprenticeship program costs about $30,000, but students leave debt-free because they work throughout the course or have won grants through the college, says Russell, who technically is a Chattanooga State instructor through his work with the Volkswagen Academy, located next to the factory.

A key reason for offering a broader career path to apprentices is to make working in a VW plant more attractive. In the U.S. alone an estimated 600,000 skilled positions are unfilled.

Companies such as Volkswagen are finding they have to nurture their own talent. The goal is to overcome the notion that working in a factory is hot, noisy, unsafe and a fundamentally unhealthy life, Subasi says.

The Chattanooga facility, which employs 2,500 and is serving as a prototype for the auto maker’s new plants, is the exact opposite. It is spotlessly clean, well-lit and surprisingly quiet, even with the assembly line in constant motion.

Recent graduate Caleb Higginbotham says finishing the apprenticeship program means new opportunities and more financial security. The 25-year-old worked for a printing company after high school, making $11 an hour with limited chance of advancement. He applied for the apprentice program after his mother spotted a story about it in the local newspaper.

“The (VW) program is hard, but the payoff for completion is substantial,” Higginbotham says, noting that as a skilled worker he will be making twice the wage he was paid by the printing company.

Frank Fischer, president and CEO of VW manufacturing operations in Chattanooga, says the new training program equips the apprentices with the kinds of "mechatronics" skills required to face many challenges that can cripple or halt vehicle production.

"I believe you need these kinds of skills in-house," he says, adding he prefers not to rely on outside contractors.

“Volkswagen believes in investing in its people,” says Fischer. “The apprenticeship students are trained with a passion for detail that is crucial to our success, and we are eager for them to join our skilled team of experts.”