Four-year degree required. It’s been a standard part of job descriptions in the insurance industry for the better part of the past two decades. Now, it’s time for an overhaul.

The college degree prerequisite, which is well intentioned, creates a number of great employees. But it also leaves too many talented people on the outside looking in. Further, it hurts our industry’s efforts to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce because it leaves out people who cannot afford or are otherwise unable to obtain a four-year degree.

Apprenticeship programs are changing the dynamic. They’re allowing our industry to cast a wider net, find ideal candidates, and help them learn on the job while they further their education. And, through the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation’s IDEA Council and other coordinated efforts, the industry is sharing information and learnings to understand the benefits these candidates bring to our industry and explore best practices for getting new apprenticeship programs off the ground and enhance existing programs.

How It All Started

The executive sponsor of Aon’s apprenticeship program tells the story about how she would look out the window of our Chicago headquarters and see a local community college down the street. She would think to herself, “There’s a lot of great, diverse talent inside that building. How can we bring that into our company?”

At the time, we already had an apprenticeship program in the UK that was doing well. So, we decided, why not try it here? Our U.S. program started in Chicago in 2017, around the same time that Accenture and Zurich started similar programs. Together, we founded the Chicago Apprentice Network. Since 2017, the Chicago Apprentice Network has expanded to six additional cities. We have employed over 300 apprentices since 2017 and continue to hire 80-100 annually.

At Aon, we developed our apprenticeship program in partnership with Harold Washington Community College and a group of 25 apprentices were hired throughout our client support, HR and IT departments.

The model proved wildly successful. We have found that our apprentices are the most diverse group of colleagues coming into our organization. Eighty percent of apprentices successfully complete the program and move onward in our organization. That’s a stark contrast to the national average of eligible interns (57.6 percent) who converted to full-time employee roles in 2023, per the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Additionally, we see higher levels of engagement from our apprentices. We measure this both statistically through our annual engagement surveys, and anecdotally, as seen in our apprentices’ active involvement in our 15 Business Resource Groups.

But the strongest endorsement we receive is from our apprentices themselves. Take, for example, Chant’e Boyd. She grew up in the Cabrini-Green section of Chicago. Most of her peers did not go to college. She worked in the retail and restaurant industries for 18 years, reporting to work at 3:30 a.m. and working every holiday. When she heard about our program, she thought there had to be a catch.

Today, at age 40, Boyd has earned her associate degree and is a valued member of our team. “Now I can finally tell my daughter, ‘Be like me,'” she says. I’m thrilled to say that Boyd’s daughter is part of our 2023 apprenticeship class.

How to Start an Apprenticeship Program

These seven best practices have helped us shape our program at Aon and serve as key foundational elements that other companies can follow.

  • Have strong leadership and managerial buy-in. Like most major initiatives, an apprenticeship program must be embraced by the C-suite. But it’s equally important to get managers on board. Data from the DDI Frontline Leader Project shows that 57 percent of employees quit jobs because of their boss. Your managers will play a critical role in developing and training your apprentices, so their engagement is a must-have.
  • Aim to meet or exceed national standards. Ideally, apprenticeship programs should seek certification from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). If you don’t have that certification when you start, then set up your program infrastructure to meet DOL guidelines. That will ensure you can seek DOL certification in the future. In a DOL-certified program, participants receive both an associate degree and a certificate from DOL recognizing their accomplishments.
  • Start with a cohort model. It may be tempting to integrate apprentices into every office in every city — and you may, and can, eventually get there. But start small. Start in one city, one office, with a smaller group — maybe between five to 25 apprentices — and build on your success from there.
  • Work with local schools and organizations. Inner-city community colleges are wonderful talent sources, offering access to students with a wide array of perspectives and possibilities. Additionally, seek nonprofit partners who can give your apprentices wraparound support, such as career navigation guidance, so they can achieve success across work, school and life.
  • Create opportunities for in-person engagement. We have found in-person engagement to be critical in the apprenticeship process. Apprentices in proximity to their manager or team have found easier opportunities to connect, grow and share.
  • Make broader connections across the industry. As you start to build and expand your program, consider tapping into resources like the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation. Networking with their members has allowed our team at Aon to collaborate with people on a regional and national level who share our passion for creating more inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible workplaces.
  • Join a regional apprentice network. Aon is a founding member of eight out of 10 apprentice networks located in cities across the U.S. When employers join these networks, they can learn additional best practices from leaders of established programs. Additionally, they can meet other apprentices who have achieved career success.

There is plenty of talent to go around these days. But to find that talent, companies must go beyond the four-year college degree requirement. Apprenticeship programs hold the power to create more diverse and highly engaged workforces that can transform the way we hire, credential and learn — and deliver powerful business results, too.