Insuring a career: A first-of-its-kind apprenticeship in the insurance industry

A first-of-its-kind apprenticeship program in the U.S. is giving students a chance to reinvent themselves and set a standard for creating a new workforce for the insurance industry.

A redefinition of apprenticeships is taking place in the northwest suburbs of Chicago as students embark on a new path to acquire the skills they need to enter careers in the insurance industry.

William Rainey Harper College and Zurich North America’s first-of-its-kind apprenticeship in general insurance is the start of a change happening across post-secondary education, as community colleges establish themselves as a vital link between employers and a skilled workforce. This public-private partnership imported the apprenticeship model from Switzerland to develop the next generation of Zurich North America employees in Illinois.

Harper College in Palatine, Ill. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

At Harper College in Palatine, students are offered an opportunity to “earn while they learn,” a familiar selling point for traditional apprenticeships found in construction and manufacturing. Instead of picking up a hammer or a wrench, these apprentices are learning real-world skills while working toward AINS® certifications and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Administration. After the two-year program, they’ll receive a job offer with Zurich North America upon graduation.

Zurich North America apprentices Noelia Salgado and Dane Lyons wanted to redefine themselves through higher education. They never considered that the insurance world would be where they would land, but the Harper-Zurich apprenticeship opened their eyes to a future where there are no limits to their career prospects.

Learning from experience

As the mother of a five-year-old, Noelia Salgado, from Elgin, Ill., wondered if she was pulling her son into the same world in which she grew up.

“Growing up I would go to work with my mom. And on Saturdays, I would take him to [work] with me. It’s happening all over again,” Salgado said, “That’s what I didn’t want, I didn’t want to repeat a cycle.”

Noelia Salgado. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

Salgado, the first of her family to be born in the United States, said that learning from her family’s immigrant experience is what motivates her to continually strive for a better life and gain the financial security which comes with a well-paying job. Her mother, a refugee with limited English skills, had to work long hours, often with Salgado in tow.

Now Salgado was the one working a second job while also attending Harper College and working as an apprentice for Zurich. She said she is determined to give her son a different experience, one that would inspire him to look at her as a role model for his future.

“I’m contributing to my career, to my education but at the same time, I’m contributing to my son’s life. He’s seeing what I’m going through and he’s going to know that he can take different routes to reach success, and success is whatever it is that is important to him,” Salgado said.

They are a team and they would get through the short-term hardship of missing out on the quality time together. She understood that it would take hard work and a college education to get her to the next level.

Growing up as the English-speaking go-between for her family and the U.S. immigration system, Salgado observed how the legal system worked. She learned how important it was to be diligent in reading and preparing documents as her family transitioned from residency to citizenship. She thought she was going to have a future in legal work.

“I was a legal secretary because at that moment I was still wanting to get into law and possibly pursuing a degree in paralegal work or an undergraduate degree in [criminal] justice. I worked there for a couple of years. I’m not sure if it was just the job itself or knowing how the process of a case gets presented. It wasn’t appealing to me anymore,” Salgado said.

She left the job and stepped into a role as a medical biller for AMITA Health/Alexian Brothers Health System. There she developed a familiarity with the insurance industry, processing bills and getting to know how the system works from the health care side. However, her career prospects were limited without having a college degree. With her dreams now set on a career in finance, she enrolled at Harper College full-time while balancing her work and raising her son.

Salgado had higher goals in mind and wanted to transition to the University of Illinois at Chicago for her Bachelor’s degree, but took notice when a counselor mentioned a new two-year apprenticeship program created in conjunction with Zurich North America, with its home office based in nearby Schaumburg.

“She said it was something I would be interested in because it was commercial insurance,” Salgado said.

Without a clear pathway into the business world, she did not know where she would land or how long it would take to gain employment. Apprenticing with Zurich North America would offer her a direct path into a well-established company, where she would learn the corporate culture and build solid working relationships.

Salgado at work. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

She applied and was accepted to be a member of the program’s first cohort of apprentices. The apprenticeship comprised of classroom instruction two days a week with three days of work at Zurich North America’s offices, where Salgado would rotate through different departments within the company’s claims and underwriting sectors throughout her two years. It gave her a broad understanding of how many different types of careers were now open to her. Instead of concentrating on a career in finance, Salgado said that becoming an apprentice changed her entire outlook on her career possibilities.

“[The apprenticeship] gave me a look at my career path. It gave me my fundamental skills, it gave me the exposure and it gave me the education that I need to get to where I want to be, not just at the end of two years when the program ends. It helps my career path five years from now, ten years from now,” Salgado said.

According to Salgado, the time she has invested in her education will pay off with a secure full-time job with Zurich in underwriting and the confidence she has in the skills she has acquired. She said she believes that the sacrifice she has made for her family and raising her son will strengthen their bond and help them grow stronger as a team.

An educational model for a new working world

Exposing apprentices like Salgado to the opportunities offered at Zurich North America is part of the company’s shift in sourcing quality workers from non-traditional educational backgrounds. According to Zurich North America’s Head of Human Resources Business Partners Al Crook, apprenticeships in the U.S. for white-collar jobs are a relatively new idea whose time has come.

Al Crook. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“We’re learning we are actually growing apprenticeships in white-collar environments because we know the apprentice model allows somebody to not have to go to school and make a career choice that will be five years in the future. They can start becoming involved in their careers right away,” Crook said.

As Zurich North America and other corporations contend with the outgoing wave of retiring workers, they are competing for an increasingly smaller group of qualified applicants. A recent study from Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life said that companies are missing out on untapped talent pools of workers, from opportunity youth to mid-career workers looking to make a career change.

Instead, the research showed employers rely on Bachelor’s degree requirements as a proxy for the soft skills which many workers can acquire in a non-traditional employment training program, such as an apprenticeship. Unlike a four-year degree, the apprenticeship allows for a student to obtain skills without accruing student debt. The Harper-Zurich apprenticeship covers the costs of tuition with the agreement that the apprentice joins up with the company as a full-time employee after graduation.

Harper College President Dr. Kenneth Ender said that higher education is facing a crisis when it comes to matching student outcomes with the rising costs of college. Apprenticeships can offer a solution in three forms, what he calls a “win-win-win” for all involved parties. Students can gain a free education, colleges like Harper can align their curricula to better serve students by connecting them to in-demand jobs and employers can hire workers with ready-to-work skills.

Dr. Kenneth Ender. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“We’ve got to find a way to provide our young people with the opportunity to acquire post-secondary credentials without having to pay for it the rest of their lives. It should be paying them back the rest of their lives, not they should be repaying the rest of their lives,” Ender said.

Although apprenticeships outside of manufacturing are common across Europe, the Harper-Zurich program is the first of its kind in the U.S. for students to acquire the skills and experience to work in the insurance industry. The program is also the first to be officially sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Zurich North America’s office in Schaumburg, Ill. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

But this educational model can be applied to many other industries other than insurance. Another study from Harvard Business School and Burning Glass Technologies said that many more middle-skill occupations can benefit from the apprenticeship model. If more American businesses adopted the model and adapted it to post-secondary institutions, more than a million students can access well-paying careers through apprenticeships

Zurich North America is at the forefront of discovering the value of hiring workers with an associates degree and its partnership with Harper College ensures they have the skills the company needs. Zurich North America pledges to have 100 apprentices in the program by 2020.

With its fourth cohort entering the program this semester, Dr. Ender said that the apprenticeship is attracting a diverse range of applicants from different economic backgrounds and age groups, many of which would never be exposed to careers in insurance. Their success will show that companies who partner with community colleges and increasing access to the apprenticeship model are making a smart investment, one that can uplift workers without degrees out of low-wage jobs and into high-demand middle-skills occupations.

Inside the Zurich North America offices. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“Zurich is hiring people in their apprenticeship program with associate degrees that never even had a look, never had an opportunity. The more that we find jobs that we can really align with a certain skill set and then find a way to produce an artifact that says a student has that skill set, I think you’ll find an economy that begins to put less of an emphasis on a Baccalaureate and more of an emphasis on the skills that [workers] bring,” Ender said.

The apprentice next door

Dane Lyons shares a Schaumburg address with Zurich North America, but he had no idea that his future would be with the company.

Growing up in a military family, Lyons decided to join up with the U.S. Navy upon graduating high school. He said that he thought that his military background and skillset would translate into the civilian world. He had developed the technical skills to operate a nuclear reactor, but not having a four-year degree limited his job prospects.

Dane Lyons. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“When I initially got out of the military, I was under the impression that my military experience was going to be able to replace a degree and I found that that’s not the case at all. Having any form of higher education has definitely opened up a number of options for me,” Lyons said.

He worked for eight years in loss prevention with a national home improvement store then changed course again after meeting his wife. He said that the first job to call him back was a car dealership, so Lyons settled into the job for six years while he started his family. With two boys at home, Lyons felt the pressure of the 12-hour days in sales was working against his ability to be there for his kids. When a holiday came around, he was spending long hours at work instead of being a dad.

But he could never find the right balance between work and finishing his college degree.

An admissions counselor from Harper College pointed Lyons in the direction of the Zurich North America apprenticeship. Lyons said that he thought the apprenticeship would be in sales, something which he was looking to break out from instead of reinforcing.

“The way I felt about insurance before was kind of just another sales position. I didn’t realize there was a whole behind-the-scenes avenue for insurance. It wasn’t just sales. There are people processing claims, processing documents for underwriters, underwriting itself and there was a whole bunch of different things involved with it,” Lyons said.

Though he would be earning a paycheck from his apprenticeship, it would be less than what he would make during a normal week. But the Monday through Friday schedule of the apprenticeship would allow him to have more time with his family.

“The overall quality of life and the fact that I’m able to spend more time with my family was an easy decision maker for me,” Lyons said. “My family’s happier just because I get to be around them more. I get to help my wife out with the kids in the morning, after school, and vice versa.”

Lyons at work at Zurich North America. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

Like the other apprentices, Lyons spent his first year working in different departments in the claims division before moving into underwriting support in his second year. Lyons said that it was a challenge moving into a field where he had no prior experience, but the weekly classroom instruction reinforced the tasks he was performing at the Zurich offices.

Another challenging aspect of the apprenticeship was staying focused on the end goal. With each day brought more forms to process and more time-consuming tasks to complete. In time, Lyons would use his problem-solving skills simplify a job he felt could be automated. Zurich recognized his ingenuity for using macros in his work and presented him with an award for automating a process.

After completing his apprenticeship, Lyons will begin working with Zurich North America’s Management Solutions group. He is already enrolled in an online program to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in fire safety engineering. With this degree, he can continue his work with the company in risk engineering, which provides its underwriters the data they need to make accurate decisions.

Without his apprenticeship, he would not have been shown what his future would entail in five or ten years. He said that Zurich North America and Harper College is connecting the skills he learned in his former military life into a well-paying and sustainable career, one which he and his family are proud of.

“While I operated the nuclear reactor before when I was in the Navy, that’s kind of come full circle now because I see that there are careers within insurance like risk engineering where I can take those technical skills, I can marry them with the non-technical skills that I’ve learned through the apprenticeship program and then combine those and then pursue a career,” Lyons said.

Lyons said that an apprenticeship has changed his life and it can do the same for others who are looking to make the jump into a new career.

“In the long term, [an apprenticeship can] end that cycle of jobs where you either top out and you start doing the same thing over and over again. If you’re looking to get out of that cycle, I’d highly recommend an apprenticeship program like Zurich-Harper have put together,” Lyons said. “It’s not nearly as scary as you think it may be. Once you start, once you get that first class done with, the rest of it just becomes a routine and just becomes another part of your life that you weren’t doing before.”

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