Insurers Turn to Apprenticeships to Find Diverse, Next-Gen Workforce
Aon, Zurich North America and Accenture’s multi-employer Chicago Apprentice Network has been so successful, it is expanding to other industries.
- Terrence Dopp
- February 2021
ON THE JOB: Zurich apprentices (from left): Jordan West, Liz Rodriguez, Sreelekha Sathiyamma, Jose Gonzalez and Trinette Patterson head to the coffee bar at Zurich North America’s headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, in February 2020. Sathiyamma graduated from the program in November 2020 and is now a Zurich cybersecurity analyst.
Photo courtesy of Zurich North America.
- People: Apprenticeships are designed to increase diversity, lure those returning to the workforce and provide entry to others outside of the traditional corporate world.
- Timing: As the cost of four-year colleges has grown in the U.S., access to a free education and full-time job becomes even more attractive to students of all stripes.
- Solution: The Chicago Apprentice Network and others are gaining momentum as insurers look to foster diversity and attract new people to the industry.
Al Crook, head of HR business partners and apprenticeship at Zurich North America, years ago came across a troubling factoid: Some roles within the insurance industry ranked just behind those in real estate and the clergy in terms of age of employees.
He's quick to concede the apprenticeship program he helped found five years ago at Zurich isn't a panacea, but it was a good start that quickly grew into the multi-employer Chicago Apprentice Network. The enticements of Zurich's two-year program? Free education, a guaranteed job and a promotion following completion.
The goal is to look beyond college graduates, particularly those with insurance-related degrees, as the sole group of prospective employees.
“We knew that there was a model that worked in our European counterparts, and in other parts of the world apprenticeships are very popular,” Crook said. “With the need to always have more talent and access to more talent, apprenticeships were an untapped and undeveloped source for that talent. We knew that we could build it so that it could be more popular both in the industry and across the region in which we work.”
The federal Labor Department has made growing and expanding apprenticeship a priority, launching “Discover Apprenticeship” five years ago as part of a larger effort to increase job training and add 1 million new apprentices by Sept. 30, 2021. Since Jan. 1, 2017, more than 800,000 people in the U.S. have found employment through apprenticeships, according to department figures. More than 9 in 10 workers who complete an apprenticeship earn an average of $70,000 a year, and 94% are still employed six months after program completion.
The Chicago Apprentice Network was launched in collaboration with Aon and Accenture and has grown from an inaugural class of 25 apprentices to 740 apprentices working with more than 40 employers across industries, according to Aon and the Chicago Apprentice Network. Crook said 116 people have been hired at Zurich through the program.
Zurich North America is part of Zurich Insurance Group, a multiline insurer founded in 1872, with about 54,000 employees today. The company provides a range of property/casualty and life insurance products and operates in more than 210 countries and territories.
Some of the most senior people in the firm, who are in this stage in their 50s and 60s, had come as apprentices. So the concept wasn’t totally new to us. It just hadn’t been deployed in the United States.
Zurich North America's apprenticeship program is designed to broaden the company's employee base, but there are some hurdles to overcome.
“Over time, we fall in love with certain things. We've fallen in love with owning a car. We've fallen in love with owning a home. I believe as a country we also fell in love with the four-year degree,” Crook said. “I think that's why other options like apprenticeships fell out of favor.”
Zurich's earn-while-you-learn program—launched at its Schaumburg, Illinois, headquarters in 2016—provides a debt-free path to a professional career. Apprentices include high school graduates, veterans, those reentering the workforce after a hiatus, people wanting to move from a job to a career, and others attracted by the prospect of a guaranteed job and promotion.
As a rule, apprentices spend part of the week at work, and the rest at school. They receive pay, commensurate with an entry-level job, from sponsoring companies.
As Bridget Gainer, Aon's chief commercial officer, tells it, it's all about creating networks. Once a quarter, the Chicago Apprentice Network holds meetings—which she likens to speed dating—for apprentices, interns and prospective employers to connect. The events usually attract about 400 people and allow both newcomers and seasoned professionals to establish a base of mutual support, she said.
“Internships are great, but if we don't find some way to have this lead to career-track jobs, then this isn't really going to move the needle,” Gainer said. “Some of the most senior people in the firm, who are in this stage in their 50s and 60s, had come as apprentices. So the concept wasn't totally new to us. It just hadn't been deployed in the United States.”
Zurich's first program was held at its headquarters and concentrated on general insurance. It's now expanding geographically and educationally, with new areas of business including human resources.
Crook said retention among Zurich apprentices has increased over the past five years to about 90%. He notes particular program success in the field of cybersecurity, where threats evolve so rapidly that by the time they filter into a traditional college classroom, they're old news.
Zurich created an apprenticeship program of four cybersecurity candidates, with the first group already finished and another on deck, Crook said. “That solved a real business challenge,” he said. “Quite frankly what we found is that some of those who go to school for this don't have the application knowledge.”
With the need to always have more talent and access to more talent, apprenticeships were an untapped and undeveloped source for that talent.
Zurich North America
Apprenticeship is a decidedly low-tech way to attack a 21st century problem. The concept dates to the Middle Ages, when master craftsmen would use younger workers and in return, workers would get food, lodging and training in a given profession. In the U.S. it was supplanted by the four-year college degree as the preferred route to the middle class.
This past November Aon announced it would invest $30 million over five years to expand its own apprentice network to more U.S. cities—including Houston, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—to establish a nationwide network of employers who will create 10,000 apprenticeships in the U.S. by 2030.
The Chicago Apprentice Network founders, along with JP Morgan Chase and The Hartford, will expand that program as well. The move will include collaboration with educational partners and nonprofits to create the necessary infrastructure, similar to the approach with City Colleges of Chicago, College of Lake County and One Million Degrees for the Chicago Apprentice Network.
For John Kinney, chief claims officer at The Hartford, a victory for the program came in the form of a recent claim filed by a VIP customer he declined to identify for privacy reasons. The customer was so happy with their experience, they sent an email that reached top executives. Among the claims representatives the customer highlighted? A former apprentice.
The Hartford has its own apprenticeship program in Connecticut that has been expanded to other U.S. locations. The company works with local two-year schools to develop curriculum that pairs well with on-the-job training, so participants get a strong theoretical and practical knowledge base, Kinney said.
Apprenticeship boosters regularly point to this coordination of academia and hard-nosed job training as the biggest advantage of the arrangement.
At The Hartford, apprentices serve in customer-facing roles in claims while getting tuition assistance and other employee benefits. After successfully completing the program, employees can use the company's tuition reimbursement program to continue their education and are free to move throughout the organization.
With about 7,000 claims employees, The Hartford faces the prospect that even in the most stable of years with low attrition, the company can find itself needing to hire 700 to 1,000 people. The apprenticeship program and partnerships with two-year colleges expand the company's hiring pool, Kinney said. “We kind of sat back and we said, 'What other avenues are out there to attract talent into the organization—frankly with an eye toward people of color and women—to try and broaden the diversity of our team?' It was another way for us to creatively look at what other pathways are out there,” he said.
By focusing on community college students, who are often second-generation immigrants or first-generation college students, Kinney said, the Hartford gets access to the “grit quotient.”
“You look for people that can adapt to adversity,” he said. “When you think of the average path of somebody who's the first person in their family to have gotten into a college program, that tells me that person has gone above and beyond to get there.”