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One of the world’s largest automakers has stepped into the fringe of American education. Volkswagen has imported its German-style apprenticeship program to the U.S., and American labor officials hope it might become a model.

“It’s a totally different mindset. It’s a totally different culture,” says Ilker Subasi, who heads the Volkswagen Academy on site at the company’s Chattanooga plant.

Subasi sees a stigma in the U.S. against technical education. But in Germany, more than half of high school graduates go into vocational programs like VW’s. Subasi himself was once a VW apprentice.

Once accepted, the company’s U.S. “mechatronics” students earn a small stipend over the course of three years while learning how to maintain robotics. If they stick with the program, they’re hired with a starting salary of $22 an hour. They also earn an associate’s degree from Chattanooga State Community College and a DIHK certification from the German American Chamber of Commerce, which would allow them to work at German auto plants around the world.

“At first, I was like, ‘Am I going to be pushing around a broom? Am I going to be changing light bulbs?’” recalls Alex Bizzell, a 22-year-old who graduated last week. “It’s been a substantial effort to do it, but now I know exactly what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

The VW school is heavily subsidized by the state of Tennessee as part of an incentive package to bring the automaker to the state in 2009. A stadium-sized building beside the plant that builds the Passat houses the classroom space and hands-on learning. 

Inside, a robotic arm two stories tall swings through the air, as a student practices programming machines like the ones used next door. Michael Regan says he tried a year of community college before applying.

“You know, I was never that really into writing and all of that,” he says. “I’m not that big of a writer. I was just always more of a hands-on person. That’s just how I learn better.”

At Regan’s graduation, a top executive told the dozen students he hopes they will ultimately retire with VW.

Some graduates are taking the option to spend a year working at a German plant. Others are deferring their job to finish a four-year degree. Regan starts work immediately – albeit on the night shift.

“Look at the benefits and the future he has with this company,” says Regan’s mom, Sharon. “And that’s why you go to college is to work for a big company – most people – to make a good living and have good benefits. And he’s going to have it at 22.”

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