New career initiative launched in Hamilton County

By Mike Pare, Chattanooga Times Free Press, June 16th, 2016

Joseph Miller of Central High School says he’d like to work at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant after he graduates, fixing the complex robots that help assemble cars in the high-tech factory.

He hopes a new initiative unveiled Thursday that he and 25 other Hamilton County students are pioneering will put him on a fast track to such a career path with the German automaker.

Some 26 juniors from Hamilton County high schools are taking part in the Mechatronics Akademie, where they’ll spend part of the next two years learning how to maintain and fix industrial robots and combine mechanical, computing and electronics skills.

“It’s going to give career opportunities,” said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, which is teaming with the carmaker and Chattanooga State Community College in the new effort.

Sebastian Patta, the VW plant’s executive vice president for human resources, said he’s convinced the initiative will put the students’ careers in “the fast lane.”

“It’s time to put on your seat belts,” he told the students at the Volkswagen Academy, where the automaker trains employees at the plant. That’s where students will receive much of their technical training.

CSCC President Dr. Flora Tydings said students will learn differently than they have in the past.

“Your world of education is about to be turned upside down,” she said.

When students graduate, they’ll need just one year of post-high school coursework to earn an associate degree, officials said. They’ll have the potential to earn more than $40,000 annually working for a manufacturer such as VW. Graduates, however, aren’t promised a VW job.

“There are plenty of jobs out there,” said Tim Spires, Tennessee Association of Manufacturers chief executive.

David Cowan, career and technical education director for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said students are offered dual credit and dual enrollment coursework. They can use the HOPE scholarship to defray some costs, he said.

Cowan said there are plans to include another group of 26 students in about a year.

Also, officials are looking at launching a similar initiative with Charleston, Tenn., polysilicon producer Wacker.

Annie White, program manager for nonprofit Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee, termed the Mechatronics Akademie “an ideal pathways model” to connect students with manufacturers.

“Volkswagen is a great partner,” she said.

Noemy Marbury, a student at Tyner Academy, said she believes she’ll like the kind of work involved in mechatronics.

“Everyone doesn’t get this opportunity, and I’m going to take it,” she said.

Cameron Newman, a junior at East Hamilton High School, said he’d like to get into either mechanical or electrical engineering. One of his teachers, in whose class he and other students built robots, encouraged him to sign up for the Akademie.

“I was kind of good at it,” Newman said.