When Zurich Insurance in North America – an insourcing company based in Illinois that has operated in the United States for more than a century – needed to ensure a pipeline of qualified employees for its insurance business, it adopted a workforce training model familiar in Europe: white collar apprenticeships.
As part of an initiative started by the White House, Zurich committed to hire 100 apprentices by 2020, established a relationship with Harper College in Illinois and then set out to fill the first 24 slots.
Often, FDI brings more than just capital to the United States. It also attracts the best ideas from around the world to our shores, benefiting our communities and workers. Yet, apprenticeships, especially in service industries, are virtually unheard of in the United States. How would this effort go over in a country where the term “apprentice” is more likely to evoke the skilled trades, or perhaps the Walt Disney movie Fantasia?
As the plan was announced, some wondered if Americans would be receptive to this relatively unknown opportunity.
“Eventually, we had to turn away hundreds and hundreds of well-qualified candidates,” said Al Crook, Zurich North America vice president of human resources and business partners, still sounding a little stunned by the turnout. “That shows just what a great entry point it is to employment.”
The apprenticeship program resonated across a diverse talent pool: People already in the industry, those in school, and workers interested in mid-career changes. And that, said Brian Little, senior vice president for human resources and country head of human resources for Zurich North America, hints at its potential.
“The apprenticeship program shows we can attract people who may not have been on our radar previously,” said Little. “When I joined the company seven years ago, I wondered why the Swiss economy was so good; most of the people there go through an apprenticeship program. That’s how we learned how effective these programs are, and I always thought if we did that here in the United States, we could change our economy.”
Zurich rotates apprentices through its departments so they can learn all aspects of the insurance industry; at the same time, apprentices attend school two days a week. By the time they finish, they will have a deeper understanding of the insurance industry than a typical short-term training program could impart.
Among the first class of apprentices are Laura Hanselman and Louis Erkins, who embody the diversity of workforce the program attracted.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for more than 17 years,” said Hanselman. “Now that my kids are getting ready to go to college and I know that cost is there, it was time for me to go back into the workplace.”
Hanselman worked as a claims adjuster after college and liked the insurance business. But after nearly two decades out of the industry, she knew things had changed. So she enrolled at Harper College where, one day, she received an email about the apprenticeship program. And she had a light bulb moment.
“I liked the idea I would be returning to school two of the five days [per week] and I’d be earning a business degree, as well as getting some insurance credentials,” said Hanselman. “That was very appealing to me, and something I thought would be a good fit for my family.”
Erkins, on the other hand, graduated with a sociology degree just two years ago. A friend who had worked for Zurich told him it was a great company, and Erkins was looking for something that would fit his skills and help him grow as a professional. But when he heard about the apprenticeship program, he was initially confused.
“I thought apprentice programs were more for blue collar work,” said Erkins. “It was definitely something new to me.”
New and, it turned out, a perfect fit. While both he and Hanselmen are currently on the claims rotation, the fact he’s not settled into one department is a big part of the appeal to Erkins.
“Every day when I come into work, it’s always something new and different,” he said. “I think it’s just great being here.”
Erkins says he is quick to tell his friends and contemporaries about the apprenticeship and what a great opportunity it has been for him. In fact, he is pleased to be an ambassador for the program.
“I wish I could’ve gotten it straight out of high school,” he said. “I hope I can go back and tell my story, how I went back to school and gained knowledge and a corporate apprenticeship with on-the-job training. You can always go back and learn more.”
Hanselman echoed those sentiments, and said her participation in the apprenticeship program is providing a good example to the next generation in her own home.
“It makes me feel good that I am preaching to [my children] that whatever you decide to do, you have choices, you’re not stuck on one path,” she said. “If you want something, you’ll go after it and have choices. It’s up to you to make things happen. I think that’s a good example for my kids to see.”
Zurich’s Little found similar interest among his company’s corporate peers at a recent meeting in Chicago with the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor.
“[There were] a number of officials and executives from companies we normally compete with who were actually trying to work with us to start programs like this one,” he said. “As Zurich increases the amount of apprenticeships, that’s great. But in all reality, the industry needs to have apprentices – to create not just hundreds of jobs but thousands of jobs; not only to build a pipeline for us to be successful, but also what’s good for communities and the United States.”