Illinois’ Harper College to Host Zurich’s Apprenticeship Program

By | June 18, 2015

A global insurance company is teaming up with a Chicago-area community college to create what they believe is the first-of-its-kind insurance apprenticeship program in the United States and one they hope will become an industry standard in this country for attracting new talent.

Zurich North America and Harper College in Palatine, Ill., are looking at an early 2016 start date for what is basically work/study program, in which students seeking a two-year business administration degree will simultaneously be employed at the insurance carrier.

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 had completed the three-year program in that country went on to find employment within Zurich, the company said.

The company also has established a similar apprenticeship program in the United Kingdom, said Zurich NA’s Head of Human Resources Brian Little.

Little said the concept of bringing people into potentially key technical roles within Zurich early on in their careers has been successful in both Switzerland and in the U.K., which has an educational system similar to that of the United States.

“We saw that it worked in both environments. From that we were convinced that we could make it work here,” Little said.

While collaborative apprenticeship programs between colleges and industry are not unknown in the United States, most are in manufacturing and trade industries so “this is a nontraditional apprenticeship sector,” said Dr. Maria Coons, vice president of Harper College, which is located a few miles from Zurich NA’s campus.

Harper already runs an apprenticeship program in manufacturing, but a program serving the financial services sector and insurance is unique, Coons said.

“To bring this into the financial services world and insurance in particular, I think is going to be a game changer for the industry,” she said.

Like every other business sector, the insurance industry is facing the loss of experienced talent as the “Baby Boom” workforce ages and retires.

“We want to make sure that there is a good flow of talent into not only our business but the insurance industry in general. We thought an apprenticeship would be a great way to get people who might not normally turn to Zurich or any other type of insurance company, to get them interested in what we do and learn about it and have a really good career out of it as well,” Little said.

He said the program differs from internship programs, which usually have a very short time span.

“Each of the people that we hire will meet our standards in terms of what we’re looking for in our program. They truly will be getting training for about two years until they complete their degree,” he said.

They will be full time, paid employees at Zurich and will work regular hours “except when they’re at school. But they’ll be paid for that time, too,” Little said.

The qualities that the company will be seeking in its apprentices are similar to what it would look for in any employee, Little said.

For instance, a potential apprentice would be a high school graduate with an interest in a business or related field, have at least some orientation toward process and have the ability to work collaboratively with others. They would be a good team member and have good communication skills, but also have the ability to take information, translate that into action and be very outcome oriented, he said.

“Where people have done that either in school, for example coming out of high school, or if they are already a working professional … we’ll be able to assess that and select the individual that suits us the best,” Little said.

Coons said development of the program is very much a collaborative effort between the two organizations.

Harper is “working with Zurich to identify the students or potential students, understanding that the approval comes directly from the company because they are funding this entire initiative. So we are sending referrals to Zurich of students that we think may be a good fit so that they can screen them as well. We also are screening for college readiness … people that have their reading, writing and math skills and can get through a college curriculum,” she said.

Working on a business administration degree, students will take classes taught by Harper professors such as introduction to business, economics, sociology, accounting and communications, in addition to insurance classes that Zurich is helping to develop.

Harper has agreements with several four-year schools to allow students to transition seamlessly into a baccalaureate program if they choose to do so, Coons said.

“Zurich provides support today even for our employees to go to school and complete their four year degree if that what they choose to do,” Little said.

At work, the students will get exposure to underwriting and claims, as well as some support functions, depending on the person, he said.

“They’ll learn fairly broadly both of our primary functions and some of the support functions that go into them. We’re not locking them into a particular space early because we want them to understand the business. … Then as they get closer to graduation we expect them to be clear about their interest,” Little said.

He said the company expects that most of the people that complete the program will become long term employees of the company.

Zurich sees the program as somewhat of a pilot for the insurance industry, “to show that if insurance companies work together with our community colleges we can create insurance apprenticeship programs throughout the country,” Little said.

“If this works well, and we anticipate that it will, hopefully we’ll see other companies who will want to participate not only with Harper, but with other schools … and we will be able to create a different type of attraction model that will help bring people to our industry with the right skills and aspirations,” he said.


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