The spectacular announcement that Volkswagen will build its North American assembly plant in Chattanooga continues to elicit palpable excitement in the Chattanooga community. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was there at the beginning, involved in the recruitment effort to bring the automaker here, said Chancellor Roger Brown.
“UTC is proud to have been involved in the pitch to the Volkswagen officials on behalf of our city. We participated in the presentation to the VW team in March and April, when they were still considering three U.S. sites,” Brown said.
Volkswagen representatives heard about the SimCenter:National Center for Computational Engineering research on fuel efficiency and electric vehicle technology, a new Construction Management degree program launched in cooperation with Chattanooga State and the 70 majors offered at UTC.
Today, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is on track to work with the automaker to create learning opportunities for students.
Less than a month into fall semester, Volkswagen engaged UTC communication and marketing students in a “Ride and Drive” event that got them behind the wheels of Volkswagen vehicles and then gave them a chance to write about the experience. This academic adventure allowed the best written submission to be published by a professional news organization.
“A well-educated workforce is a benefit to the entire community, not just Volkswagen, and so events like the one held on September 12 are a win-win-win,” said Jill Bratina, Director, Corporate Communications for Volkswagen Group of America. “We are invested in the communities we call home and will be a reliable partner with the state of Tennessee and the city of Chattanooga. Long term commitment is the hallmark of our success, and we look forward to a long and productive relationship.”
As Volkswagen explores partnerships with institutions of higher learning in Tennessee, Bratina explains the process has only just begun. “You might say that we are in our listening tour phase, in that it’s time to get to know the community, the colleges and understand what they offer on one hand, and what their needs are on the other.”
When Volkswagen has defined its plan, the newly appointed dean of the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science is ready to listen. Dr. Will Sutton has worked extensively with Mercedes-Benz US International, Inc. in Tuscaloosa County Alabama and Honda Manufacturing in Lincoln, Alabama. As head of mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama, he helped facilitate a Mercedes connection that produced a large number of cooperative-education opportunities for students.
“The UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science will be looking to Volkswagen as they build their plan. We will work to align our programs to help meet their needs,” Sutton said.
Reports have circulated that Volkswagen took notice of research conducted by the SimCenter:National Center for Computational Engineering, which assisted U.S. Xpress Enterprises in cutting their fuel bills.
“At The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the National SimCenter is able to provide analysis of the tire and wheel well of a vehicle that is not easy for anyone in the world to do,” Sutton said. “These computational engineers show great capability. If you are doing world-class applications for businesses, you will get attention.”
UT Chattanooga Center for Energy, Transportation, and the Environment (CETE) is engaged in research on alternative fuels with an eye toward environmental issues. Dr. Ronald Bailey’s work with CETE was influential in bringing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hydrogen Road Tour 2008 to Chattanooga, a time for consumers to take a test drive the cars of the future. Volkswagen’s hydrogen model, the HyMotion Tiguan, was featured at the event along with hydrogen-fueled vehicles from other manufacturers.
In this green environment lies a greener economy according to the UTC Dean of the College of Business, Dr. Richard Casavant. Using the examples of BMW Manufacturing in Greenville, South Carolina, and Mercedes-Benz US International, Inc. in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, Casavant anticipates the local economy will experience dramatic changes in the next decade. In addition to his duties at UT Chattanooga, Casavant serves on the Hamilton County Commission.
“Volkswagen will bring 2,000 good-paying jobs with benefits, and it will make a positive impact. In both Greenville and Alabama, there is proof the number of jobs actually increased over time,” Casavant said.
For instance, Casavant said the Spartanburg County BMW plant expansion last March will add 500 jobs over the next few years. An encouraging report posted by the Greenville Area Development Corporation suggested “with economic impact studies showing that nearly three jobs have been created across the state’s economy for every one job at the plant, the investment could result in thousands of new jobs for South Carolinians.”
Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant creates new urgency in preparing students and improving schools, Casavant said. As middle managers from Germany make the move to Chattanooga, they will need assurance their children can seamlessly move from one education system to another. Potential job-seekers are also looking at the University in a different light.
“We have already had inquiries from people who are pursuing the MBA, and they want to know if their credits will transfer to the University. It’s an indication that people will be moving to pursue jobs here,” Casavant said.
Half of the courses UTC business students take are outside the college, Casavant said, giving them a wide breadth of academic knowledge. Those with a concentration in human resources, marketing, management on the production side and accounting and finance will have “a leg up in competing for these jobs. And I stress ‘competing,’ because there will be many people applying for these jobs,” Casavant said.
UT Chattanooga is ready to work with Volkswagen to focus new degree programs on their most pressing needs, so that graduates will be ready to take high-paying, technologically advanced jobs in business, engineering, healthcare, education, and all of the fields that Volkswagen and other modern companies will be seeking when they move to Chattanooga, Chancellor Brown said.
“We are happy to be bringing intellectual capital to the table for Volkswagen as we work toward expanding our relationship,” Brown said.