Zurich North America's headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois ©James Steinkamp Photography

Thanks to a push by the insurance industry, apprentices may be coming to an office near you.

This is the second article in a three-part series about apprenticeship in the United States. Read the first part here.

In 2014, the global insurance company Zurich was trying to figure out how to attract qualified employees to its division in the United States, one of the largest markets for the Swiss-based firm. Then President Obama earmarked $100 million in grants in an effort to expand apprenticeships. That clinched it: Zurich North America decided to import the popular apprenticeship model long used at its Swiss headquarters.

Zurich North America, which has about 3,000 employees on its campus in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, launched its program in January 2016 with 24 new apprentices. It became the first insurance company in the country to offer registered apprenticeships, in partnership with a community college across the freeway, Harper College (recipient of one of the federal grants).

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, apprenticeship is a path to the middle class and a proven training strategy for workers to learn the skills that employers need in high-growth industries such as information technology, specialized services, health care, and advanced manufacturing. Of those who complete programs, the vast majority secure employment with an average starting income of more than $50,000.

So why has America been reluctant to roll out apprenticeships outside of a few blue-collar fields?

Al Crook, a human resources executive at Zurich North America, feels the U.S. has been cool on apprenticeships because of the prevailing notion that you go to high school, college, and then onto a career, or bypass college and go (perhaps) into a family business, the military, or a lower-paid non-professional job.

“In European models,” says Crook, “especially Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, and the UK, where we have operations, the standard is [young people] don’t have the natural or expected path from high school to college to career.” Apprenticeships are more common in Europe partly because more people there start working in their teens.

Zurich and Harper College worked together to develop the two-year program. It involves working in an office three times a week and taking classes at the college twice a week, following a customized curriculum.

Don’t make the mistake of calling it an internship. Melissa MacGregor, who manages workforce grants at Harper College, emphasizes that an apprenticeship program is actually a real job, unlike an internship, which is a time-based work experience that is often unpaid or for college credit.

When a company offers someone an apprenticeship, it’s often in the hope that they stay for at least five years, MacGregor says. Zurich requires a one-year commitment after apprentices are trained up.

The collaboration with Harper is key to the Zurich apprenticeship, Crook says. “What [it] does is allow for not only the acquisition of an associate degree through Harper College, but it also gives the apprentices the chance to rotate through our largest and most of our departments within Zurich, so they learn about the business in a way that is unique to any other role.”

When hires complete the program, they are prepared for specific job roles in claims or underwriting.

Rafael Arroyo (Zurich North America)

Rafael Arroyo, 27, was a tire technician before becoming a Zurich apprentice. The married father wanted to return to school, but family responsibilities made it difficult to pursue an education. He came across the apprenticeship through a search online.

He takes his studies seriously, he says, because Zurich is paying for his education and he’s appreciative of the opportunity. “I want to apply that knowledge in the workspace,” Arroyo says. “They treat me like a full-time employee with all the benefits, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Crook says the next step is to make the program better through “constant feedback.” After that, “goal three would be to expand the program,” up to 100 participants. The final goal is to spread the word across the financial services and insurance industry.

That already seems to be happening. The risk and insurance company Aon just launched its own apprenticeship program, also in greater Chicago, and another insurer, The Hartford, is developing a program to launch later this year in two cities, Hartford and Phoenix. The Hartford hopes apprenticeships will attract and retain talent “outside the traditional college track,” says John Kinney, the company’s chief claim officer.

Rather than fearing competition, Crook thinks the spread of apprenticeship across the insurance industry will make it stronger overall. “Of course, Zurich would like to hire the best of the best,” he says. “But the way we do that is for all insurance companies to be exposed to the possibility of the apprentice programs so they, too, can create [a program] that’s a fit for them … and really drive our industry.”

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