In early 2016, Zurich North America teamed up with William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill., to offer an apprenticeship in insurance program and now its first group of employee-students have graduated with a job at the company and an associate degree in business administration. Each graduate also received the Certified Insurance Apprentice designation through the Department of Labor’s ApprenticeshipUSA initiative.
Zurich NA’s parent company, Zurich Insurance Group, has long had an apprenticeship program in Switzerland, where the group is headquartered. In 2014, 94 percent of those who completed the three-year program in that country stayed on as Zurich employees, the company said.
But there were a lot of unknowns three years ago when the company was designing its curriculum for the United States. For one thing, while collaborative apprenticeship programs between colleges and industry are not unknown in the U.S., most are in manufacturing and trade industries. Harper College had an apprenticeship program in manufacturing in place, but one serving the financial services/insurance sector was a first for the institution.
With an 80 percent graduation rate in the first cohort, the company considers the inaugural class a success. According to Al Crook, head of HR Business Partners for Chicago-based ZurichNA, the apprenticeship participants are not the only ones who received an education throughout the implementation and completion of this new program. He says Zurich is eager to share its experience with other companies that are interested in what apprenticeship programs have to offer.
Crook described the program as an “earn-and-learn model. The apprentices are in the Zurich offices for three days of the week and they go to Harper College for two days of the week.”
The students attend pre-determined classes as a group. “They complete the classes based on the scheduling done by Zurich and Harper, and based on the curriculum for the associates in arts and business administration,” Crook said.
“When they’re in the Zurich office for three days of the week, over the two years, they rotate through the departments within our corporate headquarters. They spend different times in each of the departments based on the relevance to the work they would be doing when they graduate from the apprentice program,” he said.
The apprentices are exposed to all the functions and units within the company. They learn not only “what we do as a commercial insurance leader in North America, but what jobs exist in the company and what career paths, and also what work is done,” Crook said.
Crook explained that Zurich’s apprentice program has been endorsed by and meets all the criteria for certification under the Department of Labor’s apprentice initiative. “We thought that was important as we were establishing the credibility of the program and the standards that are applied. In something that’s new, we thought getting some standards set would be really critical.”
The apprentices are hired as full-time employees and receive the same benefits as other Zurich employees, and even if they don’t complete the program they don’t have to leave their jobs.
Twenty-four apprentices are selected for each cohort. They are divided into two groups, with each group going through the round of rotations together.
“We’ve mapped out the entire two years, down to the hour, competency, the skill they need to learn. They rotate through those on a specific schedule,” Crook said.
When they apply to the program, potential apprentices essentially go through a two-step process of applying to be accepted as a Zurich employee and a Harper student at the same time.
“The effective candidates are the ones who are qualified, who meet both the basic Zurich requirements and the requirements to be a student at Harper. When those two things occur, then they are official applicants,” Crook said.
The partnership with Harper College allows both institutions to post the job/degree/apprenticeship opportunity. The program has been blessed with an abundance of potential candidates and the cohorts are intentionally rich in diversity, not only in the traditional categories of gender, age and ethnicity, but in life experience and diversity of thought, as well, Crook said.
“You have someone who’s been in the military versus someone who just got out of high school, someone who’s been a salesman in a car dealership. You have all those people working together. You just get such a richness of thought. That’s really been great,” he said.
Feedback from those who have finished the program has been positive, with many students saying “that without the apprentice program, without that type of entree into our organization, they wouldn’t be able to work for Zurich. There’s just not another path for them,” Crook said.
Student feedback has also informed the company in other ways. For instance, one lesson the company learned from the students involved study time. “We built in some pretty static study time. What we learned was that the different classes require different types of study time, and different times of the year require different study time.” As a result more, flexibility was introduced into the program.
The company also has “learned a lot about how to effectively onboard apprentices. One of the key learnings that we picked up quite early was the apprenticeships are currently unlike any type of other onboarding and employee experience that we have, at least in North America at Zurich,” Crook said.
It is unlike any other training program or internship, he said. “We have to individualize their (the students’) experience, so that they feel comfortable.”
Crook added that he looks forward to “tracking this growing group of employees through their careers. How do they move in the organization? How do they stay? What kind of promotions do they get? For right now, we’ve just graduated our first class, we’re tracking them, and we’re going to be excited to see where they go.”
Both Aon and The Hartford approached Zurich early on for advice on setting up an apprenticeship program and both have since established their own, using Zurich’s template and benchmark structure.
“We’re proud that we were able to build the inaugural program that they could use,” Crook said. “There’s really no secret to what we’re doing. Of course, what we train our employees and how we do our work is not something we share. But the fact that we rotate them through 16 departments at varying different times, and what kind of things we’re trying to make sure that they understand, that’s not a secret.”
Now that it has the infrastructure of the apprenticeship program in place, Zurich plans to expand it outside of the Chicagoland area, Crook said. “We have many locations that have enough scale and size to consider whether an apprentice program would help. We’re also looking at locations, and then other education partners,” including online schools.
The bottom line for Zurich is that the program benefits the company in many ways, including access to a talent base that might otherwise not have considered the insurance industry as a career choice. It’s a talent base that “we expect to be helpful in delivering what we need for our customers,” Crook said. The program expands “our ability to deliver for our customers, because we’re bringing in a diversity of thought, different approaches to work than the traditional college student or experienced insurance person might bring in.”