The Modern Apprenticeship: This Network Model Helps Aon and Zurich North America Find Top Entry-level Talent

09/25/2022 5 min read
Terry Sullivan is a Senior Writer at Toptal and a Correspondent for Staffing.com, where he covers the future of work. He is an expert in digital workplace transformation, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Custom Studios.

Despite economic slowdown, talent scarcity is still one of the biggest challenges facing many companies. In a global 2022 survey of 40,000 employers by ManpowerGroup, 75% reported talent shortages and hiring difficulties—the highest level in 16 years.

One of the ways organizations are confronting the problem is by developing and expanding apprenticeship programs. The number of apprenticeships in the US shot up 64% between 2012 and 2021, according to the Department of Labor. In 2021, nearly 600,000 people were taking part in 27,000 registered apprenticeship programs throughout the country.

Aon, a Forbes Global 2000 professional services firm, and Zurich North America, a division of the Swiss Fortune Global 500 insurance company, are helping to pioneer a new type of apprenticeship, one that includes a built-in network of nonprofits, schools, and other employers.

Both firms have had individual apprenticeship programs for a long time. But in 2017, looking to have an even greater effect on their entry-level talent pipelines and provide a stronger path into the workforce for people without college degrees, they partnered with Accenture to create the Chicago Apprentice Network.

Today, dozens more corporations have joined, and the group now comprises more than 80 organizations, including Walmart and McDonald’s. Although each company’s apprenticeship differs in the details, all network members offer positions with salaries and full-time employee benefits, plus comprehensive on-the-job training, mentoring, paid tuition at a partner school to pursue an associate degree, and a guaranteed position with the company after graduation.

This map-like graphic shows the different companies that participate in the Chicago Apprentice Network, including Aon, Zurich North America, Walmart, Accenture, and Walgreens.

Staffing.com spoke with Bridget Gainer, Vice President of Global Public Affairs for Aon; Al Crook, head of HR business partners and apprenticeship at Zurich; and leaders from the wider Chicago Apprenticeship Network about how this collaborative approach increases apprenticeship benefits for employers—and gives talented entry-level workers a leg up.

Apprenticeship Benefits for Employers

Gainer and Crook say their apprentice programs are helping to remedy talent shortfalls, grow their candidate pools, and increase equity and diversity.

A Broader Talent Pool

In a tight labor market, an apprenticeship program can give companies access to a significant source of talent that is sometimes overlooked: people without college degrees. “If the only pool of talent you're willing to consider is one filled with candidates with four-year degrees then you're going to limit your options,” says Gainer. Many American companies are rethinking four-year degree educational requirements, according to Indeed’s 2022 survey of 502 US employers. One-quarter of companies surveyed already do not require college degrees, and more than half of the organizations that do said they would consider eliminating the rule.

“This program allows us to bring in talent from a source that five years ago we didn't have,” says Crook. Zurich has 73 apprentices this year, and “if we didn't have the apprentice program, we'd have to try to find that talent somewhere else.”

Loyal Entry-level Employees

More than 80% of apprentices at Aon complete the program and start full-time jobs at the company. Although Aon declined to disclose the exact retention rate of these employees, Gainer says it “continues to increase each year the program is in place.” With the cost of hiring a new junior-level employee coming in at just under $4,700, every percentage point increase in retention matters.

This graphic shows key stats for graduates of apprenticeship programs. It shows that 87% of graduates are employed with an average $50,000 starting salary — and that they earn 38% more over time than others with similar backgrounds.
Participation in apprenticeship programs is on the upswing as employers—and workers—see the benefits.

Increased Promotions and Lateral Movement

With the advent of its apprenticeship program, Zurich also saw increased internal talent mobility—a measure of how many workers move into new roles. Mobility helps employees develop new or existing skills, get exposed to new parts of the business, and contribute more richly to the company. In 2016, the most recent year for which Zurich had statistics, apprenticeship graduates had a 56% job movement rate compared to 37% of similar non-apprentices. Of those moves, 60% of them were promotions versus 44% for non-apprentices. “Apprentices are more fluid, more promotable, and they stay longer,” says Crook.

Consider Ashley Kranz, one of Aon’s talent success stories. She went through the program in 2017 and was hired for an entry-level position. In the five years since, she’s been promoted three times—and even went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. She credits the coaching built into the apprenticeship network as one of the reasons she was successful. The program provided a lot of support, she says, including professional development sessions and an Aon manager who allowed her to take the time she needed to get acclimated to corporate life.

The Power of Educational and Non-profit Partners

The ultimate goal of any apprenticeship is to prepare highly motivated and skilled talent for full-time roles upon successful completion of the program. That prep work requires more than on-the-job training and classroom learning, says Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of One Million Degrees (OMD), an organization that supports community college students on career pathways to economic mobility, and a member of the Chicago Apprentice Network. The support OMD provides to apprentices goes beyond what busy managers and program administrators are typically expected to provide, including:

  • Relationship support: Dedicated coordinators are trained to build relationships with students, serve as career coaches and advocates, and connect them with the support they need.
  • Financial support: Sometimes apprentices receive grants and other financial incentives in addition to the salary they earn in their roles.
  • Academic support: OMD works closely with its education partners to connect students with tutoring, remediation classes, and college success seminars, which focus on time management, study habits, academic planning, and other skills.
  • Professional skills: OMD provides professional development sessions that focus on identity and inclusivity, leadership, advocacy and wellness, and financial literacy.

Erika Ehmann, OMD’s Senior Manager of Workforce and Corporate Partnerships, notes that the organization’s support “isn’t just for apprentices. It’s also for managers—some of whom might be managers of people for the first time in their careers.” OMD representatives meet quarterly with corporate managers who supervise apprentices to offer reinforcement and advice.

What’s Next for the Apprenticeship Network Model?

Based on the continuing successes of the Chicago Apprentice Network, demand for similar collaborations has skyrocketed. The group created a playbook for companies that want to set up an apprenticeship program, and served as the model for similar networks in metropolitan areas across the US, including Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Houston, Northern California, and Washington, D.C.

The apprenticeship network model has been so useful for Aon and Zurich that both companies plan to expand their programs. Zurich aims to open an apprenticeship in every business unit in the company, says Crook—and it’s adding a program for people a little further along in their careers: those who already have associate degrees. “We pick them up at that point and give them the apprenticeship to finish their bachelor's,” he says. “We believe that's an untapped market. There's a higher level of work that we can give them because they’ve finished their associate degree.”

Gainer says she hopes to see apprentices thriving in a variety of new roles over the next few years, too. “Growing that pipeline of apprentices, diversifying our workforce, and seeing these young people grow and develop inside of our firm is what success looks like to me.”


Terry Sullivan is a Senior Writer at Toptal and a Correspondent for Staffing.com, where he covers the future of work. He is an expert in digital workplace transformation, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Custom Studios.