Let Tesla Expand? Three German Teens Have a Few Thoughts.

Tesla’s hulking assembly plant outside Berlin, which opened two years ago in a community known for its forests and lakes, still rubs many residents the wrong way. They worry it threatens the quality of their water and air, and has disrupted the peacefulness that drew them to the area.

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

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

“We say, ‘enough is enough,’” Mr. Schorcht said. Their resistance campaign includes weekly hikes 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 a dynamism into Grünheide, their sleepy town of 9,000 people, and given them a perspective for their futures.

Asked whether they would be interested in a traineeship or a job at Tesla, the three — Silas Heineken, 17; Moritz Tezky, 16; and Tariq Löber, 18 — all answered at once: “Definitely!”

The three high-school classmates created a website with a built-in chatbot that tries to rebut concerns about the plan. They have also put up posters around town, adorned with two robotic-looking hands flashing a V-sign under the words “For It” written in all caps.

“We realized how easy it is for people to be against something, to reject something new,” said Silas, seated beside his friends in a garage that serves as their rec room, band practice space and campaign headquarters. “It was this general opposition that was really bothering 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 townwide referendum on the expansion. The vote is nonbinding, but the mayor said city officials had said it would play an important role in their decision.

The controversy points to a larger issue playing out across Germany, which faces an aging, shrinking population, especially in parts of the former East Germany. In the state of Brandenburg, where Grünheide is, officials predict that nearly a third of the residents will be retirement age, 65 or older, by 2030.

To thrive, analysts say such 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 myself here? Can I pursue 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. More than a third of all businesses offering apprenticeships — on-the-job training alongside classroom work — did not receive a single application in 2023, according to the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Such positions serve as the key route to work in the country’s automotive and other industrial sector.

Tesla offers apprenticeships, and a building for classes is a part of the expansion. In a campaign involving a rare level of community outreach for the company — weekly informational sessions in its showroom at the factory and several info fairs in the town — Tesla is promising that allowing it to expand would create “more well-paid jobs for you and your children.” Tesla said the warehouses and rail yard would ease supply chain issues and reduce truck traffic in the area.

When town officials decided to put Tesla’s plan to a vote,residents as young as 16 were allowed to cast a ballot. The opportunity was not lost on the three teenagers.

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

The three friends insisted 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 grew close during Covid lockdowns, often gathering for their online classes at Silas’s house. His father, Peer Heineken, provided technical support when the boys decided to begin their campaign.

Using ChatGPT, they built a website that invited people to “type what you are against” — with the goal of providing counterarguments to those opposing Tesla’s plans. But they learned how unreliable the technology can be, and ended up writing letters of apology 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 retail and restaurant scene, and a sense their town 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 various factors, including its proximity to Berlin and the site’s designation for industry. But the location, on the edge of a coal-mining region that had been losing jobs, also meant that local authorities were eager to welcome it.

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

In the first half of 2023, while the German economy contracted by 0.3 percent from a year earlier, Brandenburg recorded growth of 6 percent — the strongest of any of Germany’s 16 states.

“That has something to do with Tesla,” said Dietmar Woidke, the 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 large and small.

The company, which employs 11,000 people at the plant and still has hundreds of unfilled positions, is also more flexible about whom it hires, an aspect that Mr. Woidke considers an asset to his region.

“Tesla hires and trains people, regardless of what qualification they have earned, whether they are now engineers, skilled workers or whether they have trained to be bakers, or whether they have no professional training at all,” Mr. Woidke said.

But Mr. Schorcht and others critical of Tesla argue that the factory is largely focused on rote assembly, not skills development, offering jobs that require more basic training and lack the guarantees of the union contracts widely offered across the German automotive sector.

“The children graduating from Grünheide normally have high school diplomas that will take them to university,” Mr. Schorcht said. “They won’t stay here and work low-skilled jobs at Tesla.”

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

“All of us are looking for higher education, which is hard to get outside of a big city,” Tariq said. “But if I was going to stay here, Tesla would be a big reason.”