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Apprentice programs bridge gap between school and real world

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Insurers and brokerages are expanding their recruiting to include apprenticeships and special centers to lure the brightest new talent to the industry.

Zurich Insurance Group Ltd. earlier this year set up what it called a first-of-its-kind U.S. apprenticeship program for the insurance industry, modeled after the successful program at its Switzerland headquarters.

“At Zurich North America, we believe there are potential employees who don't have a current on-ramp to employability in jobs that Zurich might have,” said Al Crook, Chicago-based head of human resources business partners at Zurich North America. “Currently, the on-ramp is through college or years of experience in the industry. Our apprenticeship program increases the portfolio of possible employees who could, over time, hedge against a lack of employment.”

The insurer said it hopes to have at least 100 apprentices take part in the program, which is for all age groups, by 2020 and intends to encourage the industry to help establish a talent pipeline.

Harper College, a community college located near Zurich's U.S. headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, and Zurich will train students interested in pursuing an insurance industry career. The first 24 students will begin the program in January and spend two days a week in classes and three days in on-the-job training at Zurich.

Dawn Joseph, 45, and Joanne Krok, 58, say they are eager to take part in the program.

“Its programs like this that offer people seeking to grow professionally the opportunity to reach success and accomplish their goals without the burden of financial obligations,” said Ms. Joseph of the program that pays their tuition and fees and puts them on Zurich's payroll. “Making this career move would be great for me.”

“This is an outstanding opportunity to be trained by some of the brightest minds in the industry with a company that is known for its great culture,” Ms. Krok said

“This (program) is a perfect model because it prepares them for the workforce; they are basically employed when they start the program,” said Maria Coons, vice president of workforce and strategic alliance at the Palatine, Illinois-based college. “If there are materials to read or reference, the instructors will use insurance examples to make the experience in the classroom more relevant to the apprenticeship.”

“It keeps the businesses in the area and keeps people living here and it contributes to the overall economy of our area,” she said of the benefit to Harper College.

In a separate effort, Washington-based risk and insurance advisory firm Risk Cooperative also recently set up an apprenticeship program (see related story).

Elsewhere, American International Group Inc. recently invested $4 million to join efforts with Clemson University to establish the Risk Engineering and System Analytics Center on the university's South Carolina campus. The goal is to create a next-generation workforce skilled in risk engineering and systems analytics, develop innovative technology-based tools to mitigate risk exposure, and facilitate the use of big data to make critical decisions, AIG said in a statement.

The lack of people entering the industry is the biggest hiring issue, said James R. Martin, the center's director and chair of Clemson's civil engineering department.

“Everybody has this problem, and that's one of the biggest reasons why academic institutions are partnering with corporate,” he said. “For a company like AIG, what's most important is innovation. Being able to get people who can think in a way that can contribute without having to wait three or more years to come up to speed is necessary.”

Student interest has been overwhelming, Mr. Martin said.

“The hottest subject globally is cyber risk and, more specifically, cyber risk in the automotive industry,” he said. “How do you handle it from an insurance standpoint when someone hacks into your vehicles?”

For small and midsize companies that lack a college recruiting program, organizations such as GradStaff Inc., a recruitment agency, can provide such services to fill entry-level professional positions. GradStaff also recently launched CollegeDirect, a program to recruit college seniors for positions that begin immediately after graduation.

Many students GradStaff courts are liberal arts and general business majors.

“Let's face it, very few college students go to college to go into the insurance industry,” said Robert J. LaBombard, GradStaff's Minneapolis-based CEO. “Yet, insurance has long been a home for college grads with a wide variety of college majors.”

Debra Zorn, Bloomington, Minnesota-based workers compensation insurer SFM Mutual Insurance Co. employment specialist, has hired about 15 graduates through GradStaff.

“Because the insurance industry struggles to introduce new talent into the industry, we have had to be creative in staffing,” Ms. Zorn said. “Programs like GradStaff and internships have been a successful start, but the insurance industry has more to do to fill the upcoming needs in the industry.”

“There is an incredible pool of people who could be brought into the insurance profession, given access to experienced leaders in the industry; we would improve our diversity, we would improve the pathway people have to get good jobs, and it's a space where there just aren't enough qualified candidates,” said Dante Disparte, Risk Cooperative's founder and CEO.