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The People’s Plant

Volkswagen Chattanooga
The People’s Plant

“Only people can design cars. Only people can build up a plant. Only people can ensure the quality of parts.”

“It’s all about people. That’s our philosophy at Volkswagen Chattanooga,” says Hans-Herbert Jagla. He’s executive vice president of human resources for Volkswagen (which translates to “the people’s car” in German). Jagla is in charge of staffing the company’s new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Eighty percent of the success of the people you hire is determined by the selection and recruitment process. Only 20 percent you can train. You can train and change behavior, but it is very difficult to change a mindset. That is determined in the selection and recruitment process,” Jagla says. “The impact is huge—if you get the wrong workforce, you will fail in the market.”

Hans-Herbert Jagla (left) and Ron Pankratz of Volkswagen Chattanooga
Hans-Herbert Jagla (left) and
Ron Pankratz of Volkswagen Chattanooga.

Failure is, of course, neither an option nor a likely outcome. Volkswagen is a dominant force in the global automotive industry, posting record-breaking revenues of €126.9 billion ($180 billion USD) in 2010. It is the world’s third-largest auto manufacturer and a recognized innovator, from the iconic economy-sized Beetle to clean diesel technology to its widely admired brand and advertising. Volkswagen Chattanooga extends this spirit of innovation to its hiring and selection processes to hire workers manufacturing a completely redesigned Passat. The new mid-size sedan recently hit showrooms. The selection of the more than 2,000 workers to build it draws from processes that are field-tested in plants around the world. But this plant utilizes a new approach to pre-hire simulation that, like Volkswagen’s cars, is a beautiful blend of know-how and technology. And, it’s the result of industry-leading innovators working together.

A World-Class Selection Process

“We always have a structured selection and recruitment process,” says Jagla. “It is different [from plant to plant] due to the country and their needs.” To localize the process for its first-ever plant in Chattanooga, Volkswagen partnered with DDI to provide resources and support for every step in the process. 

For the start-up, Volkswagen Chattanooga needed to hire workers in four job areas: production, maintenance, professional, and management associates. For each family, the process has four similar steps: sourcing, screening, assessment, and interviews.

The majority of new hires would become production workers—the people who will build the new cars. Their direct effect on the quality of cars makes hiring them paramount to Volkswagen Chattanooga’s success. “The focus was to hire locally and we did not anticipate finding people with automotive experience. We wanted a system that picked the best people who would be most successful, and we wanted the process to give them a realistic preview of what the job would be like since for most of these people, this isn’t something they’ve done before,” says Ron Pankratz, manage of recruiting and planning. 

The process to meet these needs has four intense steps.

1. Sourcing

Jobs were posted with a number of outlets to reach the most people and “fill the funnel” with a diverse pool of candidates. Because applications are only accepted online, special care was taken to connect with state and community resources and job centers so applicants without internet access were not excluded.

2. Screening

Volkswagen Chattanooga realized that gauging motivational fit—that is, a person’s inclination and affinity for the work and the workplace culture—is critical to selecting production team members in Chattanooga. “There is no workforce in Chattanooga and Hamilton County that’s done this kind of work before,” says Pankratz. “We needed to offer a realistic job preview of what the work is like: the repetition, the pace, passion for detail. There are a lot of things that the average person in this area has not done before. Getting them to understand that is key.” Besides the repetitive and physically demanding tasks that are part of this job, those selected also must possess a penchant for quality and customer satisfaction. These two attributes are part of the “Volkswagen Way” (which incorporates principles of Lean Manufacturing) and hallmarks of the company’s culture.

Volkswagen Chattanooga screens for motivational fit, but also empowers candidates to make the decision about fit themselves. Those who apply view a video detailing the production jobs available. Screening continues in the next step of the process, with a realistic job preview that is, literally, hands on.

3. Testing and Assessment

“If there’s one thing that stands out about Volkswagen Chattanooga’sselection process, it’s their best-practice use of testing and assessment,” says Mac Tefft, senior consultant for DDI. Production applicants spend a full day on-site at a Volkswagen Chattanooga assessment facility. The morning starts with two computer-based tests. One evaluates process and quality orientation. Another, called a Team Member Career Battery, evaluates job-related personal qualities, judgment, background, and experience.

Many companies stop with tests, but Volkswagen Chattanooga applicants still have three-quarters of the day ahead of them. They move on to an automated production simulation of manufacturing work—a three-part re-creation of the tasks workers perform, which lasts for four hours. This never-before-deployed assessment is tough, by design (see below). It enables Volkswagen Chattanooga to monitor how well applicants are able to sustain key attributes related to attention to detail. But it also gives applicants insight into the life on the job, and another chance for them to discern if the job is a fit.

The day ends with a “Kaizen” exercise, a short computer-based test that asks applicants to offer improvement suggestions based on the simulation they just completed. All the data collected is synthesized into one overall score that determines who advances to the interviewing stage.

4. Interviewing

Volkswagen Chattanooga utilizes behavioral interviewing techniques as the final step before extending job offers conditional on medical and drug screens. Hiring managers and HR staff conduct the interviews using DDI’s Targeted Selection®. Interviewers check knowledge, skills, and motivations related to the critical competencies for each job family. DDI generates guides to ensure fairness, and also trains interviewers to integrate the information they collect to make decisions together.

“It’s really the whole system,” Jagla says. “You have to be clear and decide if you want a selection process just to get résumés, or if you want to have a really neutral process where you first decide on the criteria of the workers you want, and then design the steps to get them.” Clearly Jagla and his team chose the latter approach. Each criterion is measured in at least two steps of the Volkswagen Chattanooga process. Some, like Teamwork or Affinity for the Work, are measured in every step.

Results, on a Scale of One to Five …

“We have a dedicated system that fits the company,” says Jagla. Since hiring began in November 2009, more than 85,000 people have applied for all positions, enabling Volkswagen Chattanooga to meet its staffing goals with high-quality workers. Evaluations from candidates who took part in the selection process are also a testament to its quality. They were asked to rate different aspects of the process on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most positive.

  • 4.6 out of 5: I felt that I was treated fairly by people during this assessment.
  • 4.3 out of 5: I found [the manufacturing simulation] to be engaging (that is, it held my interest and attention).
  • 4.15 out of 5: This assessment measured skills and capabilities relevant to the job in question.

Comments on the evaluation forms that provide feedback on the hiring process are also positive. “I felt it gave us a clear view on what to expect. I appreciate the opportunity and if given the chance I would make a great employee at Volkswagen. Thank you,” said one. “This was a very unique approach to measuring a person’s capabilities…I enjoyed it!” said another. And someone else said a lot with just a few words: “Ready to start today!”

“The need is to get the folks who will be the best fit and offer an understanding of what the jobs would be like,” says Pankratz. “We needed both those pieces to attract the best people, and we think it’s been very successful on both accounts.”


  • Ron Pankratz and Mario Duarte of Volkswagen Chattanooga's recruiting and planning group talk about using DDI's pre-employment assessments to select for a plant start-up.

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