Are apprenticeships the new on-ramp to middle-class jobs?


“I knew what I wanted in a company and that’s why I ended up here,” Wright said. Like all apprentices, he is required to work an additional third year at Zurich. After that, he said he hopes to become a claims handler, which pays a median salary of nearly $64,000 a year.

The attrition rate at Zurich has been relatively high, with seven of 48 apprentices dropping out before completing their two years. Jennifer Schneider, a spokeswoman for Zurich, said the company isn’t concerned about those numbers. Some people have left voluntarily to pursue an education elsewhere, she said. With the insurance industry facing a tsunami of retirements that could free up some 400,000 jobs, Zurich and companies like it have plenty of incentive to find new ways of recruiting workers. But if businesses burn through apprentices and the programs don’t end up benefiting employers, it’s easy to imagine how some apprenticeships could disappear.

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 Apprentices study for an associate degree in business at Harper College, which is working with community colleges nationwide to help them develop apprenticeship curricula.

The apprenticeship program reflects a broader shift toward occupational training at Harper College and institutions like it. Kenneth Ender, the college’s president, said that two-year — and even many four-year — liberal arts degrees no longer hold currency in the labor market unless they’re paired with industry-specific skills.

While some decry this departure from academic education, Ender said students are still being equipped with the solid foundation in math and English that will allow them “to continue to learn the rest of their lives.”

“The slow, four-year baccalaureate is a privileged way of getting an education,” he said. “Some will be able to do it; most won’t.”

Harper has started seven different apprenticeship programs since 2015, and it has two more in the works, in cybersecurity and IT. Models differ slightly: The cybersecurity apprenticeship offers a certificate, not an associate degree, for example. All the companies working with Harper pick up the costs of school — about $15,000 annually per student for white-collar apprenticeships — but that’s not a requirement of the model. Apprentices participating in a program run by the professional services giant Accenture, for example, must pay for their own courses, officials with the company said.

Rebecca Lake, Harper’s dean of workforce and development, said she doesn’t tailor the programs narrowly to fit the whims of any particular employer. “I don’t sell it that way,” she said. “It’s an associate degree in business.”

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 Apprentice Tommy Dowd is studying for an associate degree in business administration at Harper College while working three days a week at Zurich.

One afternoon this year, Wright and his fellow apprentice Tommy Dowd sat in Harper’s no-frills cafeteria discussing the three-hour insurance class from which they’d just been sprung. The course material was dense, Dowd said, but sometimes “something will click. This is what I’m doing right now [at work] and my class is talking about it.”

Dowd, 21, who is working toward his first degree, isn’t sure exactly what he wants do after the apprenticeship. But, he said, he likes the practical nature of his coursework and appreciates the chance to gain concrete business skills. Atobajeun, meanwhile, said she has a plan — she wants to transition into human resources at Zurich once the apprenticeship ends.

She has already identified a future mentor in human resources: the manager who first interviewed her for the apprenticeship. When he called Atobajeun to offer her the position, he gently ribbed her for accidentally cursing during the second day of interviews. (She’d been mortified.) The HR manager told her she had impressed him and would receive an offer, but he issued a good-natured warning: “Don’t embarrass me.”

So far, so good. Atobajeun’s job performance has been anything but embarrassing. Last semester, for the first time in her academic career, she earned a 4.0.



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