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‘Not Every Job Requires’ A Four-Year Degree - How Apprenticeships & Vocational Training ‘Can Help Narrow The Wealth Gap’

Published Sunday, February 14, 2021
by Judith Crown/Crain’s Chicago Business
‘Not Every Job Requires’ A Four-Year Degree - How Apprenticeships & Vocational Training ‘Can Help Narrow The Wealth Gap’

(CHICAGO, ILLINOIS) - Aon's Corporate Office on East Randolph Street in Chicago is only three blocks from Harold Washington College in the Loop, but it might as well be in another time zone.  The insurance giant never hired from the two-year community college, but after collaborating with the school on curriculum, Aon devised an Apprenticeship Program that provides paid entry-level jobs to 25 Harold Washington College students while they attend school.

"We realized that unless we bring these students in for full-time jobs, we're never moving the needle on diversity," says Bridget Gainer, Chief Commercial Officer for Aon's public-sector partnership who also is a Cook County Commissioner.

Aon has teamed with other large employers to establish an Apprentice Network to promote more diverse hiring - an association that's expanded to more than 40 area companies.

It's one initiative in a sprawling eco-system of training that includes Union Programs, community colleges, non-profits and government agencies.

Diversity in workforce training historically has been stymied in terms of supply and demand.

Corporate employers like Aon routinely recruited at four-year colleges for entry-level positions and didn't consider alternative pipelines.

Meanwhile, Workers looking for training that leads to good-paying jobs face obstacles such as access to transportation and child care.

Some candidates can't afford to enroll in a training program that doesn't pay a salary or stipend.

Just making sense of the options available can be daunting - both for job seekers and employers.

When high school students are considering college, they can turn to a national guide such as Barron's to research a school's costs and majors, says Matt Bruce, who serves as the Executive Director of the foundation-backed Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance - which aims to increase employment, earnings and racial equity for under-prepared Workers.

"We don't have that for training," he says.

Aon had been experiencing high turnover in entry-level roles, which suggested that the job requirements established more than 10 years ago needed to be updated, Gainer says.

The starting jobs in IT, human resources, and account and claims management have career ladders.

"This is a way to attract a different pool of talent that we didn't see," she says.

Aon teamed with Accenture and Zurich Insurance in 2017 to establish what has become the Chicago Apprentice Network.

More than 40 companies are offering 800 apprentice roles, says Aon's Daniel Serota, Senior Manager of Public Affairs/North America, who has worked to recruit companies to the network.

Employers often get locked into hiring routines, recruiting at large universities where they can find accountants, marketers and engineers in one place, Gainer says.

"No one in HR gets fired for hiring a college graduate.  But does this job really require college, or have I just gotten in the habit because it was easy?," Gainer said.

Diversity isn't a supply issue but a demand equation, she says, adding: "The real constraint is an employer who can only see one way into the company."

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