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Zurich brings its apprenticeship program to the U.S.

The Swiss insurance giant is offering an apprenticeship program in the United States through an arrangement with Harper College in Illinois.
The Swiss insurance giant is offering an apprenticeship program in the United States through an arrangement with Harper College in Illinois.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu and Zurich North America Commercial CEO Mike Foley joined a U.S. ambassador, Switzerland ambassador and industry representatives Feb. 2 to usher in a new apprenticeship program, held at the insurer's Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters.

Touted as the “first of its kind” in the U.S. insurance industry, Zurich’s apprenticeship program, which began in January, is open to students at Harper College, located in nearby Palatine, Ill. Students will work for the carrier on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, working one year each in the claims and underwriting departments, while also going through shorter rotations in other company sectors, such as finance, risk or marketing. Apprentices are considered full-time employees, and are paid for their work.

At the same time, the apprentices will earn an associate of applied science degree in business administration at Harper. The apprentices will attend class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Zurich pays all tuition fees for each of its 24 apprentices. The carrier says it will hire 100 apprentices by 2020, and expects to roll most of its students into formal, full-time work once their apprenticeships are completed.

“We believe in something called 70/20/10, which means that 70% of what you learn is on the job, 20% is from coaching and 10% is in the classroom,” said Brian Little, head of human resources for Zurich North America, in a speech. “We partnered with Harper to help people really understand how to work in insurance. We want to change how we educate, how we engage, and how we help people participate in our workforce.

In a speech, Deputy Secretary Lu said that for every dollar a company puts into an apprentice, they get a dollar and a half back. When visiting Switzerland with U.S. Ambassador Suzi Levine, “I was struck by the mindset of Swiss companies. They don’t view apprentices as a cost they need to bear, but as one of an investment in their workforce. It’s a sentiment we need to push out to more companies around the country.”

“I’m here because economic policy is foreign policy, and foreign policy is economic policy, and 5.8 million jobs are currently going unfilled in the United States for lack of skilled labor, ranging from insurance adjusters to welders,” Levine said in a speech. “I realized we had an opportunity to leverage the Swiss apprenticeship model in the U.S. What Zurich is doing is good for business, and good for all of America.”

Zurich's apprenticeship

The program is modeled after the carrier’s pre-existing program in Switzerland, where vocational apprenticeships are the norm. Last year, the White House awarded Harper a $2.5 million federal grant to support Apprenticeship on Demand, which promotes educational instruction with on-the-job learning in white collar fields.

About 144 people applied — and not just recent high school graduates. Program directors say that applicants were between 18 and 55 years old, and included those who were looking for career changes and one who has an MBA.

Of note, 16 of the apprentices (67%) are a protected class, meaning female or of a minority race, for example, a point that stands out for Lu. “An apprenticeship program allows you to recruit a much more diverse workforce,” he tells National Underwriter/PC360. “It allows you to tap into a broader pool.”

Lu also credits Zurich for being leaders in recruiting the next generation, not just in the insurance industry, but as a leader in the U.S. “We often talk about apprenticeships for the trades, but what you are all doing today is remarkable. You are expanding this to a field that hasn’t traditionally had apprentices. There is no reason why this can’t expand to the pharmacist technician or IT departments.” The Department of Labor will “continue making a commitment to this model until it is imbedded in this country,” he says.

Also speaking at the event was Martin Dahinden, ambassador of Switzerland to the U.S., and Ken Ender, president of Harper College.

Related: 5 ways you can help recruit the next generation of insurance professionals

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