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Swiss insurer Zurich Insurance Group Ltd. announced in early June that its U.S. unit, Zurich North America, has developed an insurance apprenticeship program. Harper College, a Palatine, Illinois, community college located a few miles from the company's U.S. headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, will train students interested in pursuing a career in the insurance industry. The U.S. program will be patterned after the successful Swiss program, which touts employment rates of 94% for students that complete it. Al Crook, Chicago-based head of HR Business Partners for Zurich North America, recently spoke with Business Insurance Staff Reporter Donna Mahoney about Zurich's North America's strategy and the effect these types of programs can have on a company's talent pool. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: What inspired the apprentice program?
A: The program was implemented to help bolster the supply of talented candidates by creating a channel that doesn't currently exist. This is primarily intended to ensure that new hires continue to enter our workforce as baby boomers exit at a greater rate than they might be replaced via existing channels. Furthermore, it's modeled after the successful learning and career preparation program used by Zurich Insurance in Switzerland and other countries.
The timing is serendipitous in that the Obama administration has started an initiative aimed at significantly increasing the number of apprenticeships offered in the United States. In January, Zurich North America formalized our commitment to the initiative at the White House by pledging to bring on 20 apprentices per year for five years.
Q: Is the industry experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants?
A: The insurance industry is by no means seeing a shortage of applicants at this time. However, the apprentice program will help to ensure that Zurich's hiring rates stay on course barring unforeseen events in the future.
Q: How long is the program and what will the students who complete it get?
A: We are targeting two to two and a half years. Our first cohort will begin in early 2016. Once completed, our employees will be a certified insurance apprentice with an associate's degree in applied sciences. They will also continue their employment with Zurich, primarily in claims or underwriting.
Q: How much money is Zurich investing in the program, and where is it coming from?
A: Zurich will be hiring the apprentices as full-time employees. Our investment includes two years of pay and the cost of the associate's degree per employee. The cost per cohort class is estimated at $1.5 million. The funding is coming from existing staffing and training budgets.
Q: What percentage of the grads would you expect to hire at Zurich?
A: One hundred percent of the graduates who complete the program will have a position waiting for them at Zurich. They will be employees during the program.
Q: Could this program become an industry standard?
A: Yes, once the pilot is completed, we will begin sharing the fundamentals and benefits across the industry and work with other insurance companies to make this an industrywide program.
Q: What are the potential benefits to be gained by Zurich or other companies from the program?
A: Zurich will create well-trained insurance professionals who will complement our traditional hiring programs. Once the program is taken to a larger, industrywide scale with other insurance companies and learning institutions participating, there'll be a wider portfolio of candidates that will include trained apprentices along with current insurance hire candidates.
Jeffrey Ruby is the founder and CEO of Newtopia Inc., a Toronto-based health care technology consultant. Before founding Newtopia, he was a co-founder and chief operating officer of Cleveland Clinic Canada and Life Screening Centres Inc. Recently, he discussed trends in the workplace wellness and health benefits technology industries with Business Insurance Associate Editor Matt Dunning. Edited excerpts follow.