In the Research and Development trainee pool for Continental's Tyre Division, new university graduates learn the ropes. But the rest is up to them – in keeping with the company values "Trust" and "Freedom To Act."
When Vig arrived in Hanover, he didn't speak a word of German. Born in India, he had applied for a traineeship at Continental in the US. The application said "fluent English is sufficient." Now Vig, full name Vigneshwar Kalyanasundaram, is one of the successful graduates of the "Explore R&D" trainee pool organised by Tyres Research & Development twice a year. A dozen graduates – engineers and natural scientists – take part in each round, from students who have just finished their bachelors to those who have completed doctorates. In the first six months, they tackle technical tasks, make contacts, develop their networks, and learn the fundamentals about tyres. What makes this special is that the young talents organise the programme themselves from day one.
"There's a huge amount of creative freedom," says Vig.
"It's up to the trainees to make the most of it."
Ann-Kristin Schneider from the HR department, who oversees the trainee programme as a coach, explains the benefits of this: "Research and development employees at Continental mostly work on projects, from specifying goals through achieving various milestones all the way to approval." The new talents need to get acquainted with Continental's project management system and method of working in the development centre from the very beginning. But this involves a lot more than mastering technology and methodology: teamwork is the name of the game. This only works if there is respect for the individual – and freedom for each person to make their own decisions. This is why "Trust" and "Freedom To Act" are two of Continental's core company values.
When Silke Glasewald is asked about her time as a trainee, she happily reminisces. "We got to work on real projects and they expected tangible results, which really fired up our imagination." We worked independently, but we did not feel neglected or left alone. Trainees form a project group that reports directly to the head of Research & Development. The only specifications are objective, timing, and resources. How trainees reach this objective is up to them. "One group paid really close attention to environmental considerations, from their paper consumption through to solar cells on the roof," says HR representative Ann-Kristin Schneider .
Leading and motivating a team without any disciplinary superiors – definitely not an easy task for young people straight out of university. But that's exactly what will characterise their professional day-to-day lives when in six months time they land the right job.
Something that makes teamwork more colourful, but also a bit more challenging: People from 56 different countries work in the Research and Development department of Continental's Tyre division. There are many different cultures all put together, and a certain amount of tact is necessary to navigate the differences successfully. "I love the international atmosphere," says Silke Glasewald. "We can learn so much from each other – it's really inspiring!" The proportion of female trainees is around 40 %. Everyone speaks English. "We give trainees the opportunity to attend German classes, mainly to make it easier for them to integrate into the social life in Hanover," says Ann-Kristin Schneider .
After six months in the pool, the focus moves on to production and the trainees develop their own tyres. "This is a crucial part of the programme," says former trainee Nicolai Setzer, a member of the Executive Board at Continental. "You gain a lot of practical experience, as well as a feel for the rubber and an insight into what it's like to be a machine operator." It also provides trainees an additional one and a half years to get to know the company from varying perspectives. They work for three months on projects in one of Continental's international plants and shadow colleagues in Marketing and Sales for three weeks. This way, trainees not only learn how tyres are manufactured, but also how they get to the customer. Finally, ideas are converted into new products in the Explore Tyres Research and Development programme at Continental. Take for instance the high-tech tyres for commercial vehicles designed to withstand heavy loads. Theoretical studies will only take you so far – you need a passion for technology and development to make these products a reality.