Alexis Martin, who has worked in nursing homes and in retail, has found a niche in financial services, taking advantage of an apprenticeship, new to the industry though invaluable for decades in manufacturing and the trades.
For the 23-year-old Capital Community College graduate, her apprenticeship — a combination of classroom lessons and on-the-job training — helped her find work processing auto-insurance claims for the Hartford.
"The apprenticeship was something new," Martin said. "It's education and on-the-job training."
The apprenticeship partnership between Capital Community College and the Hartford is in its third year. Students earn an associate degree while completing instruction related to insurance claims, said Linda Guzzo, dean of the School of Workforce and Continuing Education at Capital Community College.
The community college has long offered insurance-related instruction, including customer service, risk, claims, information technology and other industry products and services.
"It really runs the gamut," Guzzo said.
A simulated call center is used as part of the apprenticeship program.
John Kinney, chief claims officer at the Hartford, said apprenticeships "bring a more diverse talent to our workplace." The insurer's claims operations employ 7,000 employees nationally.
The first group in the two-year program in Hartford had eight students who graduated this spring. Eleven more are right behind and the Hartford recently recruited 13 to start the program this summer. The insurer's goal is to fill 200 apprentices by 2020 across the U.S.
The Hartford's Claims Apprentice Program combines paid on-the-job training, classroom work and tuition assistance made available from various sources, including federal money.
Apprentices also qualify for tuition reimbursement after six months in the program.
Students typically are "carrying more of a burden" with multiple jobs, are often looking for a second career and working their way through school, Kinney said. "We see a little bit of everything."
The insurer also is using apprenticeship programs in Scottsdale, Ariz., Florida, and outside Chicago to find new claims employees.
For an insurance company, the claims department is the first stop for customers who have experienced a loss related to their car or other property and they require the attention of employees who are good communicators, he said.
Workers also must know how to solve problems with the available data, Kinney said.
"It's the moment of truth," he said. "You're dealing with an emotional moment of a customer."
For Martin, her apprenticeship is an opportunity to "help people get back to their daily lives before the accident."
The U.S. Department of Labor is urging banks and insurance companies to turn to apprenticeships to overcome worker shortage and gaps in skills that slow efforts to expand and innovate.
Apprenticeships are an effective training model to recruit, train and keep workers, the federal agency said.
The Connecticut Labor Department is funding $5 million in an apprenticeship initiative, developing pipelines to help workers develop skills for careers in manufacturing and jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but short of a college degree.
Connecticut Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said apprenticeships in financial services are not common, but are growing in number.
"I would say it is gaining traction," he said. "Not long ago we had zero. Today we have a couple programs and are on the verge of creating more."
For prospective students staring at the possibility of owing tens of thousands of dollars in college loans, apprenticeships offer an alternative.
"Folks going through this are not accruing debt. That's the beauty of this program," Westby said.
The Department of Labor is looking to establish apprenticeships in banking, an industry where the same skills can be applied to entry-level workers, he said.
The Zurich Insurance Group established an early apprenticeship in financial services.
Al Crook, head of HR Business Partners at Zurich, said it arranged with the Obama administration in 2015 to establish the first insurance apprentice program in the U.S. Zurich is based in Switzerland and operates in various U.S. cities.
The insurance company has hired 66 workers from its apprenticeship program and has committed to 100 by 2020, Crook said.
"We're well on track to meet that number," he said.
The Obama administration's ambassador to Lichtenstein and Switzerland advocated for financial-service apprenticeships at the same time Zurich was looking to hire, he said.
Zurich also has apprenticeships in cybersecurity.
"It was literally perfect timing and the right people talking at the right time," Crook said. "Why does the U.S. miss out on this great career training. We rely on college solely. College is not the only way to get a professional job that's not labor or in manufacturing."