Apprenticeship programs increasingly put workers on track for jobs in finance
CHICAGO — Victor Gutierrez graduated from high school with a clear career goal: to become an actuary. What he didn't have was a clear path to get there.
Juggling community college with jobs at McDonald's and a Holiday Inn, Gutierrez had little time for his studies. He worked nearly every day, leaving home at 4 a.m. and returning at midnight, always exhausted and rarely seeing his wife and infant daughter.
Gutierrez told his counselor at Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago system, that he needed another way. As it happened, one had just become available.
Gutierrez is now in the first apprenticeship class at Aon, a global insurance and risk management giant, where he is paid to work and go to school as he pursues his associate's degree in business management, with the hope of eventually getting a bachelor's in actuarial science.
"It's a complete life-changer," Gutierrez, 18, said as he sat in the gray suit and tie he wears to work each day in Aon's downtown skyscraper.
Apprenticeships, which in the U.S. are often the domain of the skilled trades, are gaining traction in financial services, one of several white-collar industries the U.S. Department of Labor is pushing to adopt the earn-and-learn model to give a way into a good-paying career without loads of student debt.
Support: Efforts to grow apprenticeships have bipartisan support. The Obama administration set a goal of doubling apprenticeships to 750,000 by 2019 and distributed $265 million in grants to expand and create programs. President Donald Trump has not unveiled formal initiatives yet but has expressed support for apprenticeships.
During a roundtable about vocational training in March, Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff encouraged Trump to "take a moonshot goal to create 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years," to which Trump responded: "Let's go for that 5 million."
The 26 apprentices who started at Aon in January are a drop in that bucket, but the company hopes its experience sets an example.
Aon's two-year program recruits high school graduates for positions that traditionally have gone to those with bachelor's degrees. Apprentices work four days a week at Aon and spend one day taking classes at community college. By the end they'll have their associate's degrees and offers for permanent positions at the company.
Aon pays the apprentices $38,500 a year plus their tuition and gives them benefits.
Adjustment: To Gutierrez, that salary meant he could shed his other jobs, focus on his career and find family balance — though it was an adjustment.
"It was a huge change from standing all day for more than 12 hours and then just sitting down at a desk for eight hours," said Gutierrez, who works in Aon's risk solutions department. Using the treadmill desks has helped.
Aon is among a small but growing group of financial firms that have registered apprenticeships with the Department of Labor, meaning their programs meet national standards for training curriculum. Zurich USA launched an apprenticeship at its suburban Chicago offices last year, JP Morgan Chase has a pilot in Texas, The Hartford in April launched programs in Connecticut and Arizona, and Wells Fargo has an apprenticeship in development, according to the Department of Labor.
Several Chicago firms — including The PrivateBank, BMO and MB Financial — that attended a signing ceremony in April with Labor Department officials to formalize Aon's program said they are considering getting on board.
"We're in the learning stages," said David Nelms, CEO at Discover Financial Services. His company could use a talent pipeline that helps increase the racial diversity of its workforce, he said.
John Ladd, administrator of the Office of Apprenticeship and Training Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor, told executives at the event that business must lead the effort.
"Government has an important role, but ultimately this is a business solution," Ladd said. "The old ways of finding talent aren't working and we have to find other ways to bring talented people into the workplace."
Companies: For some companies accustomed to recruiting employees with four-year degrees, it's taken time to get comfortable with the concept.
Aon hosted a meeting a year ago with insurance leaders in hopes of developing an industrywide apprenticeship effort, but despite initial enthusiasm, subsequent conversations revealed concerns about the ability of younger candidates.
"It inspired a little bit of doubt that they had the maturity and could take in the content information in time so they could be productive and useful," said Bridget Gainer, vice president of global public affairs for Aon. "That was a learning curve that was harder to overcome than we would have guessed in the beginning."
She hopes Aon's apprentices will dispel those doubts.
"They're killing it at Aon," said Gainer, who is also a local county commissioner. "They're adding an energy to their groups and teams that people find very inspiring, and they're also fully up to the task."
Aon chose roles for the apprentices that had posed chronic retention problems, likely because the company was hiring college graduates who were overqualified and expected to move on, said Margaret Heneghan, global head of talent development.
Aon's apprentices work on the tech help desk, in human resources and in business roles such as compliance. One Million Degrees, a nonprofit that helps community college students succeed, has a mentor in the office two days a week to help apprentices address any challenges.
Aon, which got 285 applications for its first class, plans to hire 25 new apprentices annually for the next four years. Candidates must have a high school diploma or GED, passing grades and no corporate experience.
Apprentice Kai Steward, 22, said she was nervous at first about measuring up, but putting the theory learned in class into practice has made everything easier to process.
Steward, who lives with her aunt, views the apprenticeship as a way to explore her options.
She switched majors several times at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, before landing on computer science, then left school because it wasn't the right fit and made ends meet working at Whole Foods Market, a restaurant, a dance camp and at summer festival gates. Without the apprenticeship, Steward says she likely would have kept casting about.
Gutierrez, by contrast, has a clear ambition to work in actuarial science, but he isn't sure he would have gotten the chance at a company like Aon without the apprenticeship.
Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. when he was 3 years old, and his family works in fast food, hotels, construction and factories. They have neither the connections nor the experience to help, he said.
Gutierrez credits his professional ambitions to his 6th-grade math teacher, who explained that if he didn't apply himself, he could find himself stuck in low-wage retail jobs for life.
Access to Aon has erased his doubts about landing a more lucrative career.
"I can confidently say I will get there, it's not a maybe," Gutierrez said. "I'm already inside the door, I just need to move forward."