Investing in Apprenticeships Pays Off for Employers

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer June 24, 2019
Investing in Apprenticeships Pays Off for Employers

LAS VEGAS—A panel of HR professionals with experience managing work-based learning programs like apprenticeships explained how these initiatives have helped address skills shortages in their companies, provide greater opportunity to under-represented talent pools and reskill workers with jobs vulnerable to disruption by new technology. Apprenticeships are increasingly being recognized by employers and policymakers as an effective way to increase employability and build pipelines of talent.

"Work-based learning can play an important role in helping companies and also communities bridge that gap between employment and education," said Kathleen Elsig, acting executive director at The Global Apprenticeship Network in Geneva, Switzerland. "Skills are the currency of the 21st century and will be the ultimate differentiator for companies with access to skilled and agile talent pools."

Representatives from insurance company Zurich North America and engineering firm Rolls-Royce spoke about their apprenticeship programs June 24 at the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Zurich Insurance

Jillian Walsh, Zurich's assistant vice president and employee experience and culture consultant, explained that the Swiss-headquartered company launched its U.S apprenticeship program in 2016 to offset a deluge of expected retirements and to meet the need to fill open jobs.

"We know we're competing with the banking, consulting and technology sectors in trying to attract people to insurance," Walsh said. "We also wanted to diversify our talent and needed a certain level of skills in our claims and underwriting areas. Those were the key drivers for us in starting apprenticeships."

Apprentices attend courses leading to an associate of applied science degree in business at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., two days per week and work at Zurich in their rotational role the other three days. Apprentices are considered full-time employees and receive the same benefits as other full-time staff. The learners contribute real work and convert to full-time on completion of the program.

HR handles the recruitment, placement and onboarding of apprentices as well as coordinating with Harper College. Talent management and learning and development are undertaken by business unit managers, and mentors guide and support participants.

All tuition, fees and books are paid for by the company. The program is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

"One of the best things about the program is that we've been able to grow our own talent and have the ability to train in the areas that are most important to us," Walsh said.

She added that the company was fortunate to have Harper College nearby. She advised HR to start relationships with community colleges and other workforce readiness partners in the area. "They tend to have apprenticeship expertise. That was critical for us," she said.


Rolls-Royce opened its Prince George, Va., plant in 2011. The factory was in dire need of machinists who work with precision heavy machinery to produce airplane parts, explained Linda Hogan, a learning and performance improvement expert who developed and leads the state-registered apprenticeship program at the Prince George plant.

"Positions were often open for months at a time, and recruiters were saying, 'We can't find people with these skills,' " she said.

The company decided to create its own talent pipeline by establishing an apprenticeship program. Leadership decided that the program should have a social impact as well as a business benefit. That came in the form of hiring local youth and increasing the skills base for the region.

The retention rate of apprentices-turned-employees has been incredible, Hogan said. "It's also been a great opportunity for existing employees, as we've used apprenticeships to upskill many of our existing staff, putting them through on-the-job learning."

It takes about three years to complete the program, which includes both on-the-job training and classroom work toward a certification in precision machining at John Tyler Community College in Chester, Va. Rolls-Royce covers the cost of tuition.



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