Dane Lyons, an apprentice at Zurich North America, is photographed March 7, 2016, in Zurich’s Schaumburg offices. Lyons, 37, had been working in car sales but began the two-year insurance internship in January. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Apprenticeships, long a tool of the construction trades, are getting a good look by insurance and financial services leaders as a way to groom skilled workers and grow the talent pool.
Aon, which plans to launch an apprenticeship program in its Chicago offices in January, and Zurich North America, which started its first class of apprentices in Schaumburg this year, brought together Chicago-area leaders from about 15 major firms Monday to discuss banding together to create an apprenticeship system common to the industry in Europe.
The effort, supported by the Labor Department, comes as the federal government s
eeks to double the number of apprenticeships by 2019 and create a viable job pathway at a time when millions of jobs go unfilled for lack of skilled workers and students are racking up millions of dollars in college debt.
By partnering with community colleges, the industry hopes to draw from a talent pool it traditionally has overlooked.
“If the pipeline is only through four-year colleges, then you are missing out,” said Bridget Gainer, vice president of global public affairs for Aon and a commissioner on the Cook County Board. “Let’s change the pipeline to fit what’s out there.”
Greg Case, president and CEO of Aon, said he went into Monday’s meeting with high expectations, and they were “dramatically exceeded.”
“What is clear is that we’re better together,” Case said. “When we compare notes on recruiting, how we do training and how we do networking, it just builds credibility.”
The closed-door breakfast meeting, designed to interest other companies in apprenticeships, included leaders from JPMorgan Chase, Northern Trust, Mesirow Financial, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Grant Thornton, among others.
“This is about a fundamental talent strategy,” he said. “It’s really an opportunity to bring and source talent from different areas.”
Aon is developing a two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with City Colleges’ Harold Washington College, using as a model its longtime apprenticeship program in the U.K. That effort, which starts recruiting students in high school and entwines classroom learning with a paid job, typically guarantees a permanent position in the company after the program’s completion.
The Chicago program, which will train people for roles in account management, client support, financial analysis and technology, will build on Aon’s existing partnership with Harold Washington that started in 2012 as part of the school’s College to Careers pathway. Aon and other firms helped build courses that meet employers’ actual needs, held networking events and hired interns from the school.
The apprenticeship, though, represents a much bigger commitment to cultivating and hiring candidates to permanent jobs. Margie Martyn, president of Harold Washington, said integrating classroom learning with hands-on work “makes it real” to students.
“When students read in books about business processes or what different insurance jobs might do, it’s not the same as actually experiencing it,” she said.
With nearly all City Colleges students working day jobs, Martyn said, apprenticeships also would allow them to earn money doing something relevant to their field of study.
While apprenticeships in the U.S. have traditionally been associated more with pipe fitters and plumbers than with white-collar desk jobs, the Obama administration is seeking to expand them into nontraditional areas, such as health care and information technology as well as insurance and financial services.
In the two years since President Barack Obama set a goal of doubling the number of apprenticeships by 2019, the number of apprentices has gone up 20 percent, to 451,423, said Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu. Ninety-one percent of apprentices who have completed their programs are now in a job, Lu said.
The Labor Department last year awarded $175 million to 46 grantees that have pledged to train and hire more than 34,000 new apprentices in diverse industries.
The effort requires “reversing a cultural shift” that had relegated apprenticeships and other vocational and technical programs to second-tier status in the American perception, Lu said. It also means companies will have to see beyond the upfront costs of training workers to the long-term savings of having better-trained workers and stronger retention.
Companies should view apprenticeships as an efficient way to create workers they need, he said. A decline in apprenticeships in the U.S. over the past decade, due in part to a decline in union membership, and cuts to training budgets generally as companies keep an eye on the bottom line, have led to “a decline in the job readiness of new employees,” Lu said.
“When we talk to countries overseas, they have a different ethos about training the workforce,” Lu said. “We need to change the ethos here.”
Zurich North America announced last year that it would launch a two-year apprenticeship program in its Schaumburg office, and committed to training 100 apprentices by 2020. The first class of 24 apprentices started in January.
Apprenticeships are the norm in Switzerland, where the insurance company is headquartered, but “the challenge in the U.S. is that apprenticeships are something that you do in a trade, not in professional or financial services,” so it is a paradigm shift both for candidates and for companies unaccustomed to hiring people straight out of high school, said Mike Foley, Zurich North America Commercial CEO.
“It’s something that works better when more companies do it,” Foley said. “It attracts better people.”
Zurich’s apprentices work at the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and take classes at Harper College in Palatine on Tuesdays and Thursdays, based on a curriculum designed for the program.
Zurich considers the apprentices full-time employees, paying them $14 an hour, and the company covers their tuition.
Upon completion of the two-year program, apprentices get an associate in applied science degree in business administration from Harper and get hired at Zurich as underwriting assistants or claims assistants, positions that pay $40,000 to $45,000 a year, Foley said.
They are expected to work one year for Zurich. If they don’t, they have to pay back their tuition, Foley said.
While the jobs they are being trained for don’t require a four-year degree, some may go on to earn their bachelor’s to position themselves to move up the ranks, he said.
The cost to Zurich is about $6 million to train 100 apprentices, with funding coming from existing staffing and training budgets. The payoff, Foley said, is that the company attracts people to insurance who otherwise might not have considered it, broadening the talent pool in anticipation of baby boomers retiring.
While there isn’t an immediate talent shortage, “if you look at our demographics, our industry is an aging industry,” Foley said.
Foley said that he was struck that the program drew a diverse array of candidates, from recent high school graduates to people who have been in the workforce for a long time.
Dane Lyons, 37, who lives in Schaumburg, said he took a pay cut to become a Zurich apprentice in hopes of cultivating a long-term career that would allow him to spend more time with his family.
Lyons, who has sons aged 2 and 1, was working in car sales, which required him to work Saturdays and three nights a week, when a counselor at Harper referred him to the insurance apprenticeship. He said it was a career he never considered and would not have pursued if it didn’t combine learning with paid work.
“The one thing I like the most is that everyone has been willing to help,” said Lyons, whose prior work experience included loss prevention at retailers and operating nuclear reactors.
The apprentices, who rotate between the claims and underwriting departments, have managers, mentors and tutors. “It has been very hands-on, as far as the learning goes, before they let us do it on our own,” Lyons said.