Ilker Subasi: Mentoring, coaching and training

A former VW apprentice helps young carmakers learn what they need to succeed at Volkswagen Chattanooga

Curious and always questioning “why” — “That’s my generation: Generation Y,” Ilker Subasi jokes.

Ilker Subasi. Photo credit: Volkswagen Chattanooga

Subasi was working in the Volkswagen press shop in Hanover, Germany, when he was invited to share some of his improvement ideas during a 15-minute workshop presentation. “The 15-minute time frame turned into two and a half hours,” recalls Subasi, 35, who manages the apprenticeship program at VW Chattanooga. “I gave them three options for each issue: savings, quality optimization and teamwork. They took [my recommendations] and said, ‘We have an opening on the planning team. Would you mind being an instructor?’”

Flanked by towering Transformer-like machines in the spotless robotics room—Subasi is a stickler for cleanliness here, and at home—he takes a rare break to talk about his personal journey and the training program he now oversees.

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The middle child of Turkish parents whose families immigrated to Germany, Subasi attended a Catholic school in Hanover and celebrated both Muslim and Christian holidays. He loved cars, especially his dad’s Volkswagen Bus, and vowed to own one someday. Even before the high school senior internship that changed his life, he knew he wanted to work for VW.

After completing two-week, mandatory internships at a telecommunications company and the local police department—he hated the latter because of the motion sickness from riding in the back seat of a patrol car—in 2000 15-year-old Subasi began the third and final one in the production department at VW. “I was so impressed, because it was exactly what I was thinking about,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I want to be part of that.’”

While there, Subasi did the machining for a simple vise project. An exact replica is currently showcased in the Chattanooga plant’s apprentice classroom. At the other end of the exhibit table, colorful 3-D components depict the way the computerized process is currently done.

The year after his internship, Subasi applied for the VW apprentice program, finishing at 18 and receiving an automatic job offer. For two years, he worked in assembly, then two more in the press shop, earning his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Hanover in 2007 while attending night classes. With his employer’s permission, he also took a three-month paid leave to improve his technical English language skills in an ESL exchange program at Houston Community College. It was his first visit to the U.S.

“Looking back right now, I really appreciate that four years in production and in manufacturing to understand the core business of the company, because we aren’t producing robots. We’re producing cars and making sure that the customer likes the cars,” Subasi says.

Soon after he became an instructor, he began studying at the Technical University of Hanover to become a pedagogical training specialist. Then in 2010, the head of the VW apprentice academy asked him to transfer to a new plant opening in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and start a similar program there. “My task was to take the dual German system but make it better,” he says.

After finishing his internship, Subasi became first an apprentice and then an instructor, taking what he learned in Germany and elswhere, to Tennessee. Photo credit: VW Chattanooga

But first, he needed an educational partner and some applicants, so he built on the city’s longstanding vocational relationship with Chattanooga State Community College and wrote most of the curriculum himself for the new program. “It was a matter of making all the improvements and getting it done,” he says. “I’m a hands-on guy. I’m driven by results. I want to be proud of what I’m doing on a high level. Otherwise, I will not put my name on it.”

Overall, the initiative reflected the German culture of organization, punctuality and quality. “But it wasn’t easy just to copy-paste it,” Subasi says. “We have to respect that the educational system here is different. We have to respect how people act here, where they go, how they find jobs.”

For four and a half years, Subasi traveled back and forth between Chattanooga and Germany, leading both programs and adding a high school contingency of young apprentices at the Tennessee plant in 2015. At the end of that year, he returned to Germany fulltime. He came back in March of 2018 to once again use his knack for change-making to revamp the focus of the VW Chattanooga Academy from Automation Mechatronics to the more technology-based Robotronics, a first for the global carmaker.

“I think the challenge with students is always the same, but the environment changed,” Subasi says. “They grew up with tablets, smartphones. Social media is different. And we have to consider that in our training concept as well.”

In the past, for instance, a maintenance employee would physically carry a toolbox to a cell to troubleshoot. Now, a machine that isn’t working properly automatically shuts down and sends an electronic message to a cell phone. Giving another example of the shift to robotics, Subasi points out that in previous decades, a team member would have to cut a piece of metal from a sheet to make a replacement part. Now, it’s printed onsite, saving time and money. “We don’t need people anymore filing six weeks on a benchmark or running the machines,” Subasi says. “We need people who understand the equipment language and know how to program a 3-D printer.”

Although students now rely on the internet to find information rather than trying to memorize instructions from a book, some things haven’t changed. Every graduate is paid during the apprenticeship, earns college credit, and gets a job offer on completion. Up to 48 students attend the academy at any given time—half in the first-year classroom, half in the hands-on, second-year robotics center.

Subasi oversees five teachers and two staff members. Although he spends much of his time parlaying VW’s evolving manufacturing needs into the training curricula, he still interacts with students who aren’t much older than he was when he did his own apprenticeship in Germany. “Always, when I come to them, I say, ‘I was sitting in the same chair. I know exactly what you’re going through.’ … I see [my role] more as a mentor, a coach, instead of standing in the front, reading a book.”

Sometimes he finds himself motivating a student who seems destined to fail. In the first group of students in 2010, one young man didn’t do well at first but caught on as the program progressed. After graduation, Subasi offered to send him to Germany for a year of advanced training. Two weeks after he started there, however, the student called Subasi, wanting to come home. Subasi reminded him of how hard he’d fought to get where he was, urging him not to give up and putting him in touch with a few other guys with whom he could network. Months passed, and Subasis didn’t hear from the young man, until shortly before his mentee was scheduled to returned to the states. When he finally did get a call, the student asked, “Can I stay longer?”

Always tinkering at home—“I keep my brain working,” Subasi says—he also enjoys hiking, traveling and practicing martial arts with his wife Cecilya. “She’s better,” he admits with a grin. “She’s light. She can go around my arm and just pull it down.”

Now an automotive collector, he drives an Atlas, built in Chattanooga, of course. Back in Germany, he keeps a blue-and-white 1954 Safari Bus just like the orange one parked at the entrance to the apprentice classroom. Says the lifelong VW fan, “I have my dream car.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine

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