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Employer Leadership Spurs Apprenticeship Action: A Lesson from Chicago

Companies show that when apprenticeship is used as part of a business strategy, everybody wins.

April 2, 2020

At a Glance

Companies show that when apprenticeship is used as part of a business strategy, everybody wins.

Eric M. Seleznow

If you want to start an apprenticeship movement, keep an eye on Chicago. The Windy City is a prime example of how employers and workers can benefit when business leaders actively engage in developing their next generation of workers.

The Chicago Apprentice Network (CAN), launched in 2017 by Aon, Zurich North America, and Accenture – North America, has placed over 400 apprentices with 20 local businesses in health care, insurance, manufacturing, and technology. This business-to-business networking effort brings fellow employers into the apprenticeship movement, serving not only as a use case for apprenticeship programs but also as an exemplar of employer interest.

Last week, apprenticeship took another major step forward in Chicago when city officials joined with philanthropic and business leaders to introduce Apprenticeship 2020, a collaborative fund that aims to place 350 city students into high-quality apprenticeship programs with leading area companies by the end of 2020.

The $3.2 million initiative, supported by the Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance and funded by JPMorgan Chase,, The Joyce Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation, was inspired by the success of the employer-led CAN.

Penny Pritzker, co-founder of the Pritzker Traubert Foundation and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, told Crain’s Chicago Business that: “Chicago is the beginning of a larger national effort” on apprenticeship.

Pritzker believes that the apprenticeship model, popular throughout Europe, has been underused in the United States. “The economic issue of our time is helping people adapt and adjust and thrive as we have this rapid acceleration of automation, artificial intelligence, and technology,” she said.

The Chicago-area employers that have implemented apprenticeships agree with Pritzker, and see the programs as good for their company, good for the worker, and good for the city.

“Make no mistake,” writes Greg Case, chief executive of Aon, and Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture – North America in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, “this is not a social experiment—it’s a business strategy. Our companies expect to secure a competitive advantage by cultivating sources of talent long overlooked. But the impact goes beyond quarterly earnings to transform people’s lives for the better.”

For Aon, apprenticeship has indeed been win-win. The professional services firm is able to fill core entry-level jobs with less attrition, while apprentices receive excellent pay and benefits: an annual salary of $55,000 a year, plus health insurance, a retirement savings plan, and tuition reimbursement.

“It is past time for corporate America to embrace something trades have known for more than a century: the value of apprenticeships,” write Case and Sweet in their op-ed. “To us, the ‘future of work’ is now, and it looks bright because of apprenticeships.”

There are many in the workforce development field who are forever seeking the holy grail of finding, persuading, and engaging employers to lead and shape the future workforce in their communities, but few have succeeded like CAN.

This success is not happenstance. It has come as a result of private sector leaders taking the reins to develop their own workforce. Rather than awaiting a government grant, state or federal policy, or the leadership of a foundation or nonprofit, employers Aon and Accenture have taken the initiative to start and scale apprenticeship models for themselves and other employers across the Chicago region.

To further spur corporate America into starting apprenticeships, CAN just released an implementation guide, Bridging the Gap Between Talent and Opportunity: An Apprenticeship Playbook for Professional Jobs. This handbook explores why professional organizations should consider apprenticeship programs for their workforce needs and how they can get started.

In Chicago, employers have stepped up, taken the reins, and inspired others to come together. Following their lead, the organizations behind Apprenticeship 2020 are building on their groundwork with a significant investment for developing region-wide infrastructure, building capacity and addressing employer barriers in launching apprenticeships. These efforts will assuredly lead to a stronger local workforce and improved economic mobility for hundreds.

Chicago’s model is homegrown, but it provides some important lessons to other parts of the nation that want to expand the apprenticeship model to grow their skilled workforce now and in the future.

This blog was funded by the generous support of as part of JFF’s Apprenticeship Awareness and Expansion Initiative. The national initiative expands apprenticeship and other high-quality, structured work-based learning programs through on-the-ground technical assistance and a resource and communications campaign.