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The COVID-19 pandemic has left the insurance industry’s longstanding talent crisis with new challenges—and fresh opportunities. Before the pandemic, carriers were concerned about a wave of baby boomer retirements and fierce competition with other industries for new talent.

While COVID loosened the labor market somewhat, it didn’t eliminate carriers’ ongoing need to find new ways to attract high-quality, diverse talent. Many companies increasingly recognize the value of a diverse workforce in fueling innovation and want to reflect the diversity of the customers they serve: 61 percent of North American respondents to a Deloitte insurance industry survey say they are focused on increasing the levels of diversity in hiring, development and leadership.

Applying an innovative mindset to the talent crunch takes on new urgency today. Let’s look at two actions where fresh thinking can help carriers rise to the challenge:

  1. Create new pathways for non-traditional students.

Relying solely on college graduates, professional hires or executive hires isn’t enough to win the talent war in 2021. Instead, carriers must find ways to recruit high school graduates, veterans of the armed forces and people who are returning to the workforce after taking a hiatus for family reasons.

To help reach these talent pools, our team at Zurich North America created the first insurance apprenticeship program to be certified by the U.S. Department of Labor. Launched in 2016, this program is designed to attract diverse talent while providing a debt-free path to a professional career. Modeled after similar professional apprenticeship approaches used in Europe, our two-year program is based on an “earn while you learn” approach. Participants learn on the job three days a week and supplement that with classroom learning two days a week.

We measure the program’s success in three ways. First, we look at how it fills a business need. Our need is one shared by all of us in the insurance industry: How do we ensure we have diverse perspectives that enable us to compete and innovate? The apprenticeship program helps us fulfill this need. Of all of our recruitment channels, our apprenticeship program attracts the most diverse talent.

Second, we look at the success rate of the program itself, measuring how many apprentices graduate from the program, move on to their first non-apprentice jobs and get promoted. So far, we’ve seen apprentice retention rates of more than 80 percent in our program.

The third and arguably most important measure of success is looking at the range of candidates we attract. Every single one of our apprentices could never have joined Zurich prior to this program being in place. There simply was no path for them and no job description for which they qualified, largely because of the prevalence of four-year degree requirements. The apprenticeship program broadens our talent pipeline.

One of our goals is to expand apprenticeship both within Zurich and beyond. Inside Zurich, our program has grown exponentially. It began at our Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters six years ago with a general insurance track (claims and underwriting support). We now also offer information technology and cybersecurity tracks every two years. In addition, in 2020, we started our first cohort of apprentices in our New York City office, and we’re now starting apprenticeship tracks in our Atlanta office and in our RCIS crop insurance business, with positions being offered in the Pacific Northwest, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Beyond our industry, as one of the three founding members of the Chicago Apprentice Network, we’ve worked with co-founders Aon and Accenture to share our program design and learnings with other businesses in the Chicago area. The Chicago Apprentice Network has grown from three companies to over 40 offering apprenticeship opportunities in the greater Chicago area. In the insurance industry specifically, we’ve worked with the American Property Casualty Insurance Association to equip other carriers to start similar programs.

We’re proud both of the growth of our apprenticeship program and its flexibility. When the pandemic hit, we found it actually created more opportunities than barriers for our program. For example, as the pandemic moved business to virtual settings, we brought together our New York City and Schaumburg cohorts for virtual Welcome Week activities. For our National Apprenticeship Week Summit, we featured a guest speaker from the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., to discuss how his apprenticeship in Switzerland set him up for success. This likely wouldn’t have happened if the speaker had to travel cross-country, but through a virtual presentation, we were able to give our apprentices a distinctive level of insight. Our success with providing virtual educational curriculum over the past year helped fast-track the expansion of our program to Atlanta and to rural areas served by our crop insurance business RCIS.

  1. Build diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging organization-wide.

While our apprenticeship program helps us attract a diverse pool of entry-level talent to the insurance industry, we want to improve diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging at all levels of our organization. It’s not enough to attract diverse talent; we need to support career growth if we want to retain that talent and see diverse representation throughout Zurich North America. We’ve introduced new development programs and learning opportunities to support that goal.

This year we’ve created a coaching and mentoring program called Bridges. It’s a six-month journey that brings together a group of racially and ethnically diverse mid-level employees. Our goal is to help participants connect, collaborate and share with one another while they gain confidence and get support to reach their career goals.

Bridges sits alongside our Inclusion Cohort program, which we began in 2019 to help support succession planning and career growth for racially and ethnically diverse employees in higher-level roles. Of the first group of participants in the Inclusion Cohort program, over one-third have already made further progress in their careers.

And because managers have an impact on our people’s experience of inclusion and belonging, our leadership team also has participated in training on unconscious bias and how to be an effective ally to team members representing various facets of diversity.

In addition, we encourage every employee to participate in voluntary employee resource groups that foster inclusion and belonging. We have nine ERGs at Zurich, including the Zurich African Ancestry Alliance, LUZ: Latinos Unidos for Zurich, the Asian American Alliance and PrideZ for LGBTQ employees and allies.

Our people frequently join other industry professionals in important conversations about diversity. I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of many such discussions, including those facilitated by the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF), which will host its International Inclusion in Insurance Forum from June 15-17.

Thought leadership and networking opportunities like these allow employees to learn more about diversity, participate in charitable activities and help advance equity in our communities.

The business case for diversity in insurance has never been stronger. Companies with inclusive and diverse teams are 35 percent more likely to have superior financial results over national medians, according to a McKinsey & Company 2015 article. They are also significantly more innovative than non-diverse teams, according to earlier studies cited in a 2016 article published by Harvard Business Review. The more creative our industry gets in finding new, diverse talent, the better we’ll serve our customers and each other.