CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Ever since a fateful summer decades ago, assembly lines have represented failure for me.
That year I was working in a dismal, dirty plumbing-parts factory near Philadelphia. Unlike the mechanized auto plants of today, this plant required a lot of physical dexterity; everything was done by hand. It’s a job I never cared for or mastered, and I was fired in less than two weeks. Unemployment never felt so good.
This barely registered in my subconscious mind when I got an offer to work on the line in Volkswagen’s Chattanooga Passat assembly plant for a day. Though I’ve driven hundreds of automobiles, I had never helped build a new car, so I accepted.
And as I soon learned, this was not the grimy workplace of my youth. This is a 21st century factory.
I immediately got an idea of how different it was. Rather than having hands-on training, job instruction started the night before, in front of a computer screen. My job would be in Chassis and Powertrain, Pitches One and Three. I quickly mastered both jobs in the simulation, but I wondered if it was enough. Instruction typically takes three weeks. Considering I had just 60 minutes, I wondered if VW’s reputation for German precision was true.
On the desks in the training room, black masking tape outlined exactly where the computer keyboard and mouse pad should be placed.
Other things spoke of a penchant for efficiency.
Forget expressing yourself through your wardrobe. If you’re a clotheshorse, you can kiss your favorite outfits goodbye. Employees wear metal-free clothing specified and sold by Volkswagen to prevent employees from scratching the paint on a freshly built car — a very costly fix. Jeans lack rivets, and belts are cinched using Velcro. Employees don’t wear watches or jewelry. The only metal is found in steel-toed sneakers, boots and wing tips.