CHATTANOOGA, TN — Volkswagen's $800 million Chattanooga plant expansion has begun and the factory aims to hire 600 more employees.

In one of the biggest hiring surges since the plant opened more than a decade ago, the new employees will directly join the automaker rather than first working for an employment contractor.

“We have increased demand for our product,” says Tom du Plessis, president and CEO of VW's Chattanooga operations.

He said that it has been since 2009 that VW directly accepted applications for production employees. Higher sales of its popular seven-seat Atlas SUV, coupled with assembly of the new five-seat Atlas Cross Sport SUV, are leading the German company to bolster hiring, according to du Plessis.

The plant expansion is readying VW to build a new battery-powered SUV by 2022 and more employees are needed for that milestone.

“As we continue to grow our Tennessee operation as Volkswagen's North American hub for electric vehicle manufacturing, we must also grow our team,” says du Plessis.

Volkswagen now employs about 3,800 workers, and the new hires will push the car company well over 4,000 employees in Chattanooga.

Burkhard Ulrich, VW Chattanooga's senior vice president of human resources, said the plant will have about 3,000 production workers when the automaker's latest round of hiring is finished.

Starting wages for the new VW workers will be $19 per hour, more than the recently increased pay rate, as much of the new staff will join second and third shifts.

With overtime, bonus and shift differential, production employees can earn about $46 per hour, according to VW. Maintenance workers, those who keep up and fix the plant's equipment, can earn about $58 per hour with off-shift overtime, officials said.

VW is accepting applications beginning March 23 and continuing through the end of June to fill the 600 posts. Positions will be open in the body, assembly and paint shops as well as in quality and logistics.