CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) -- Three years ago, Saul Flores was studying business and uncertain about his career prospects. That's when he heard about the new Volkswagen apprenticeship program being created at the German automaker's Tennessee plant.
Flores, now 25, was among the first class of a dozen apprentices who graduated Tuesday from the program that mixes technical skills with paid experience working in the assembly plant in Chattanooga. And he is one of two graduates selected to spend a year on an exchange at a VW plant in Germany starting in October.
Flores, who started with no background in mechanics, was attracted by the promise of a guaranteed job with an annual salary starting at $40,000 upon completing the program.
"I wanted to get my foot in the door of company, instead of graduating and then looking for a job and being unemployed for I don't know how long," he said. "It gave me an opportunity and a purpose."
Twelve of the original 20 enrollees successfully completed the three-year automation mechatronics program that includes the same certification issued to German apprentices. The program, based on the German dual-track system, is operated in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College and has a current enrollment of more than 50, and VW is adding 24 apprentices each year. New enrollees will also earn an associate's in the process.
Volkswagen uses the apprenticeship program as a pipeline to fill skilled positions within its plant. The company has 17,000 apprentices worldwide.
The transition to rigorous vocational training wasn't without its challenges, Flores said.
"It's not like in college where if you don't want to go to class you don't go. Over here it counts," he said. "If you're late, you're going to be marked late, and it's going to affect your career. Because it's basically a job interview for three years."
Volkswagen's Ilker Subasi, who oversees the program, can draw on his personal experience in teaching apprentices the various skills the company seeks. Subasi completed his VW apprenticeship in Hannover, Germany. He then spent four years assembling vehicles at the pant while he worked his way through university.
He stresses to apprentices that they can similarly determine their own career paths at the company, which he considers an incentive to keep skilled workers from taking their services elsewhere.
Apprentices go through the same exercise of hand-filing a metal block into a vise that Subasi did when he began his VW career.
"They may never use a file again because everything is automated," he said. "But it's about learning it from the ground up."
The Volkswagen Academy is located next to the factory, and was built with $40 million in state dollars that were part of Tennessee's incentive package to attract the plant to the state. Gov. Bill Haslam said the apprenticeship is in keeping with his goal of teaching more skills that can be used in the workplace.
"This is about as real-world as you can get, being on the job and yet having the extra training in the apprenticeship program giving specific instruction," he told reporters after the graduation ceremony at the plant.