Let Tesla expand? Three German teenagers have some ideas.

Tesla’s massive assembly plant outside Berlin, which opened two years ago in a community known for its forests and lakes, still bothers many residents. He worries that it threatens their water and air quality and has disrupted the peace that attracted them to the area.

Steffen Schorcht, 63, who lives across the highway from the plant, said light pollution alone meant he could no longer see stars when he looked up at night.

Now Tesla wants to clear an additional 250 acres of forest near the plant for warehouses and a rail yard, as well as a day care center for employees and the community. Schorcht and many of his neighbors are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Schorcht said. His resistance campaign includes weekly walks through the endangered forest and knocking on doors.

But three local teenagers see the situation differently. For them, the arrival of a headline-making company with an intense focus on innovation through disruption has injected dynamism into Grünheide, their sleepy town of 9,000, and given them perspective for their future.

When asked if they would be interested in an internship or a job at Tesla, the three (Silas Heineken, 17 years old; Moritz Tezky, 16 years old; and Tariq Löber, 18 years old, all responded at once: “ Definitely!”

The three high school classmates created a website with a built-in chatbot that attempts to refute concerns about the plan. They’ve also put up billboards around the city, adorned with two robotic-looking hands displaying a V beneath the words “For It” written in capital letters.

“We realized how easy it is for people to be against something, to reject something new,” said Silas, sitting with his friends in a garage that serves as their recreation room, band rehearsal space and headquarters. campaign. “It was this general opposition that really bothered us.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The debate in Grünheide will come to a climax on Tuesday, when officials announce the results of a citywide referendum on expansion. The vote is not binding, but the mayor said city officials had said it would play an important role in his decision.

The controversy points to a broader problem unfolding across Germany, facing an aging and shrinking population, especially in parts of the former East Germany. In the state of Brandenburg, where Grünheide is located, authorities predict that almost a third of residents will reach retirement age, 65 or older, by 2030.

To thrive, analysts say those regions need to attract more young people or persuade those who grew up there to return after college.

“They want to know: How can I develop here? Can I continue my education? Are there jobs? said Eva Eichenauer, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

German companies are desperate to hire young people. According to the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, more than a third of all companies offering apprenticeship programs (on-the-job training alongside classroom work) did not receive a single application in 2023. These positions serve as key route to work in the automotive sector and other industrial sectors in the country.

Tesla offers apprenticeships and a building for classes is part of the expansion. In a campaign that involves a rare level of community outreach for the company (weekly briefings at its factory showroom and several information fairs around the city), Tesla promises that allowing its expansion would create “more good-paying jobs for you and your children.” your children.” Tesla said the warehouses and rail yard would alleviate supply chain problems and reduce truck traffic in the area.

When city officials decided to put Tesla’s plan to a vote, residents as young as 16 were allowed to vote. The three teenagers did not miss the opportunity.

“The Gigafactory expansion was a reason for us to say, ‘Why don’t we show, for the first time, maybe in history, that we’re for something,'” Silas said.

The three friends insisted that they did not consider themselves fans of Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, but all three said they admired Tesla’s mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

They became closer during the Covid lockdowns, and often met for their online classes at Silas’ house. Their father, Peer Heineken, provided technical support when the children decided to start their campaign.

Using ChatGPT, they created a website that invited people to “write in what they oppose,” with the goal of providing counterarguments to those who oppose Tesla’s plans. But they learned how unreliable technology can be and ended up writing apology letters to people who received offensive responses.

Tesla’s arrival not only gave them job prospects if they stayed in the region, but also improved their overall quality of life, they said. They pointed to additional bus routes and more frequent trains to Berlin, a more vibrant shopping and restaurant scene and a sense that their city had become more interesting.

“I don’t feel like I’m living in a dead suburb anymore,” Moritz said.

The company’s decision to build in Grünheide was based on several factors, including proximity to Berlin and the site’s industrial designation. But the location, on the edge of a coal mining region that had been losing jobs, also meant local authorities were eager to welcome it.

“Tesla is an incredibly attractive employer, which of course opens up prospects for young trainees beyond coal, in fields that are interesting and relevant,” Ms Eichenauer said.

In the first half of 2023, as the German economy shrank 0.3 percent from a year earlier, Brandenburg posted growth of 6 percent, the strongest of any of Germany’s 16 states.

“That has something to do with Tesla,” said Dietmar Woidke, governor of Brandenburg. He said the automaker had not only attracted a network of suppliers and subcontractors, but had also helped the local economy in ways big and small.

The company, which employs 11,000 people at the plant and still has hundreds of open positions, is also more flexible about who it hires, an aspect Woidke sees as an asset for his region.

“Tesla hires and trains people regardless of the qualifications they have obtained, whether they are engineers, skilled workers or whether they have trained to be a baker, or whether they have no vocational training at all,” Woidke said.

But Schorcht and other Tesla critics argue that the factory focuses largely on mechanical assembly, not skill development, offering jobs that require more basic training and lack the guarantees of union contracts widely offered in the entire German automotive sector.

“Children who graduate from Grünheide usually have a high school diploma that will allow them to go to university,” says Schorcht. “They will not stay here and work low-skilled jobs at Tesla.”

Right now, the three teens are more focused on finishing high school than getting jobs or going to college. But when they think about their future, they say Tesla’s presence in the place where they grew up allows them to imagine returning one day after earning a college degree.

“We are all looking for higher education, which is difficult to get outside of a big city,” Tariq said. “But if I had to stay here, Tesla would be a big reason.”