Volkswagen is requiring production workers hired for its new U.S. assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., to go through a fitness program on top of the usual job training, aiming to forge an "industrial athlete" who can lift, grip, bend and push without flagging.
VW formally opened its training academy at the $1 billion plant site Friday. But dozens of workers hired ahead of a projected production start early next year have already been building their bodies there before they start building cars.
Jason Guess, the VW plant's manager of safety, health and wellness, said the fitness training is unique for VW plants globally.
Volkswagen Chattanooga spokesman Scott Wilson said the workouts are aimed at better product quality when the German automaker starts building a mid-sized sedan at the plant, which is expected to create about 2,000 jobs. He said time in the classroom, hands-on training and fitness training are all "focused on getting each and every one of us, no matter what our job is at the plant, prepared to show up and perform at the highest level of professional excellence."
Since April, fitness trainers have had new hires taking part in "on-the-clock" workouts that follow health testing and are individually tailored to their future production jobs that include the paint shop, body shop and assembly.
In a region that is home of Little Debbie snack cakes, MoonPies and Krystal burgers, VW wellness-disability specialist Marsha Wood said the trainees are meeting the physical challenge in a community that generally has a "body mass index that is high."
"We are improving it," Wood said, calling it training for an "industrial athlete."
She said exercises in the 2-hour daily workout sessions directed by Progressive Health Rehabilitation Services are linked to movements they will do every day and include stretching, cardiovascular strength, endurance, grip and how much employees can push and pull.
She said the workers go through a 3-week job orientation before starting the fitness regimen.
Guess said there is no weight threshold to keep a job but that some workers have lost 30 pounds in three weeks of workouts.
Guess said the plant will have an onsite fitness center that can also be used by workers' families.
Guess said many of the 150 workers who have finished or are currently involved in the daily workouts did not come from a manufacturing environment. The workouts also help build camaraderie.
Anthony Staton, an assembly worker who finished the fitness program, said he didn't like it at first. "I felt like my hand was being forced a little bit," he said. Staton, 45, worked at a desk job at home for about four years and had a sedentary lifestyle before getting hired by VW.
"That first week was really rough," Staton said. "After the first week I started noticing some changes in my body. I could do a flight of stairs a little more easily. I didn't get winded as easily."
"When the third week was over my uniform was just being delivered and I noticed my pants I had ordered when we first started working out were looser," he said.
Staton said he has dropped about 30 pounds.
Staton said his assembly job requires "an all-over kind of fitness thing." He said unlike some work areas with a floor that moves with you, he assembles where "the car moves and I have to move with it, reaching and bending."
A new logistics employee, former trucker Dan Clark, said the workouts were his toughest physical challenge since Army basic training.
Clark said he has dropped two sizes in his pants and is about 60 pounds (27 kilograms) lighter.
Clark said that as a trucker he often ate huge portions of country fried steak and gravy and now is "eating a lot smaller portions and eating healthier."
He said his VW job will involve lifting, bending, twisting and turning.
"The first week I looked at her (workout instructor) and told her I hated her," Clark said. "The third week I told her, 'I don't hate you anymore.'"