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Chattanooga, TN’s Advanced Manufacturing Sector Thrives

Coordinated training programs build a robust advanced manufacturing sector in Greater Chattanooga

By Bill Lewis on February 13, 2018

Chattanooga, TN
Chattanooga / Courtesy of TNECD

From the car in the driveway to the flooring in our homes and the appliances in our kitchens, many of the products that make modern life comfortable and convenient are created in Greater Chattanooga.

The region’s advanced manufacturing sector thrives thanks to the combination of a skilled, job-ready workforce, a wealth of training resources and logistics and supply chain advantages. The sector includes well-known companies like Whirlpool, La-Z-Boy, Lodge Manufacturing, Shaw, Wacker and Mohawk.

The 16-county, three-state Greater Chattanooga region is a center for automotive-related manufacturing. Led by Volkswagen, the sector includes dozens of Tier I and Tier II suppliers, Denso, Johnson Controls, Van De Wiele, Yanfeng, Plastic Omnium, ThyssenKrupp and Gestamp among them.

Industry and education providers work in tandem to provide workforce training resources.

In Dade County, Ga., the Southeast Lineman Training Center offers 15-week programs for apprentice electrical and communications line workers. The center, which graduates 600 students a year, also offers customized training programs for industries.

Volkswagen Academy, a collaborative effort between the automaker and Chattanooga State Community College, provides an opportunity for students to learn the skills they need to be job-ready. The program has so far graduated 72 students –all of whom were offered jobs at Volkswagen. The program has also enrolled another 98 students, including 48 adults and 50 high school students.

Advanced Training

Students train in hydraulics and pneumatics, welding, machine technology, computers, computer aided drafting (CAD), maintenance troubleshooting, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) programming, robotics and automation. The program adds academic courses in language arts and the humanities.

“The program is designed for college graduates to be job-ready in career pathways such as manufacturing-industrial maintenance, automation technician or a skilled team member at Volkswagen,” says Ralph Gwaltney, head of the Chattanooga State Mechatronics Department and a VW Academy instructor.

High school students participate in an early college program called the Mechatronics Akadamie, created by Chattanooga State, Hamilton County Department of Education and Volkswagen. They graduate from Mechatronics Akadamie with a high school diploma and more than 40 college credit hours toward a mechatronics degree.

“Chattanooga State has a proven track record of creating similar programs to serve businesses and industries in our region to effectively develop the career pathway within advanced manufacturing that employers need,” says Bo Drake, vice president of Economic and Workforce Development for the college.

Through Chattanooga State’s Economic and Workforce Development, the college supports area businesses with more than 50,000 hours of talent development training each year, he says. Training programs at the college have a 96 percent job placement rate.

“Over the past 10 years, we have placed thousands of graduates in advanced manufacturing related jobs,” says Jim Barrott, executive vice president of the Technical College at Chattanooga State. “The focus is to prepare students with an employable skill and place them in living-wage jobs within our region. Workforce development is our No. 1 priority, and we support all manufacturing companies in the region with their workforce needs.”

Gaining Strength

The demand for academy students doesn’t appear to be slowing. Volkswagen in march 2018 committed to investing $340 million to build a third vehicle in Chattanooga production, where it now employs 3,500 workers. Production ramps up in the last quarter of 2019 on a five-seat version of VW’s Atlas sport utility vehicle.

In McMinn County, Tenn., automotive components supplier Denso Manufacturing will invest another $190 million and add 320 jobs at its facilities in Athens. With a current workforce of 1,375, Denso already ranks as one of the county’s largest employers.

Japan-based Denso will add four production lines in Athens to increase production of fuel injectors, fuel pumps, oxygen sensors, ignition coils, monolithic carriers and spark plugs for auto makers across North America.

“Athens has played a major role producing and supplying our customers with key components in fuel delivery, ignition, and exhaust gas systems,” says Hugh Cantrell, director of administrative services for Denso in Athens.

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