An expanding apprenticeship pathway into the corporate world

Aon allows apprentices to earn while they learn as the program expands around the country

With aspirations of landing a better job in the future, almost half of all full-time students and the majority of part-time students are already working. While pursuing those future careers, balancing current jobs to help pay educational costs can add to the stress and challenges of trying to earn a degree. Allowing students to earn and learn in their chosen field can alleviate some of that burden.

Aon, a global professional services firm, began its corporate apprenticeship program in Chicago five years ago, allowing high school graduates to earn while they learned while gaining experience in areas such as account management, client support, financial analysis, human resources, and information technology.

The two-year program partnered with City Colleges of Chicago, and enabled apprentices to earn an associate’s degree from Harold Washington College or Harper College. Other employers including Accenture and Zurich joined Aon and nonprofits to launch the Chicago Apprentice Network.

The very successful program has started expanding nationwide, pledging to invest $30 million over five years and form new networks in six U.S. cities.

Apprenticeships Lower Barriers to Corporate Careers
Jillian Radke, North America head of early careers recruitment, Aon (Photo: Aon)

The apprenticeship program is certified by the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition to a salary and full benefits, it also includes tuition, books, and fees. Upon completion, apprentices receive a Department of Labor certificate and their degree – both of which are transferrable – and an offer for a full-time role.

“This network of organizations works to promote the value of apprenticeships in lowering barriers to entry for corporate careers and as well as promoting the benefits to employers,” says Jillian Radke, Aon North American head of early careers recruitment. “It is an innovative way for employers to attract and retain diverse talent, prepare future leaders and contribute to building a more future-focused, resilient workforce.”

Diversity is broad for those hired as apprentices, in race, ethnicity, and experience level, according to Radke. Some are high school graduates or have earned their GED. Others want a career change. Some are parents. More than half are women.

Balancing Education, Work, and Family

Susana Hernandez Torres was in Aon’s first apprenticeship cohort in 2017, which included 26 others. She was working the overnight shift at McDonald’s, attending college during the day, and supporting her newborn when she learned about the Aon apprenticeship. Hernandez Torres was one semester away from earning her associate’s degree in accounting.

Susana Hernandez Torres, senior accountant, Aon (Photo: Aon)

“The key was getting the training to pursue a career while earning a living. In my personal life, the apprenticeship program allowed me to cut down on working and school hours. I attended to my child while also going to school and supporting us with a salary,” Hernandez Torres says.

“I was amazed that I was getting paid even to attend school. If I had to do an internship or job shadow, I knew I wouldn’t earn a living or learn as much as I would during an apprenticeship. Plus, it would have been extra time outside of school working a regular job, keeping me from my family.”

In addition to getting a foot in the door of the accounting world and starting her career while learning, mentors at Aon introduced Hernandez Torres to different opportunities within the function area. She was able to job shadow and assist on projects. She is now a senior accountant in Aon’s corporate consolidations group.

Additional Support is Key to Success

Mentoring is a key component to the apprenticeship, Radke says. Each apprentice is assigned a “career navigator” provided by an external partner organization to ensure apprentices have the support to balance work, school, and life, while developing professionally and personally.

“Apprentice support includes mentoring, structured curriculum, and academic advice to help apprentices thrive in a new corporate and academic environment. Additionally, Aon or our partners help provide training for those managing apprentices to help with inclusion, feedback, and resolution,” Radke says.

While the company continues to recruit in “traditional” ways such as from four-year universities, internships, and externships, the retention rate has been higher in the apprenticeship program, Radke says. For example, 80% of apprentices since 2017 are still with Aon, as are 95% of its second cohort from 2018.

“Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not,” Radke says. “Participants don’t have to choose between earning a living in the short term or pursuing education and a career. Aon’s apprenticeship program offers the opportunity for diverse professionals to develop vital skills in the workplace while bridging the wage gap.”

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of the program has only grown, by helping to solve the growing skills gap as employers evolve their workforces for the future.”

The ongoing expansion of the apprenticeship pathway started with a class of more than 100 apprentices in Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Other companies such as JP Morgan Chase and The Hartford are following Aon’s lead, and together all of these companies are working to create 10,000 apprenticeships across the U.S. by 2030.