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Harold Washington Students Learn Tech, Insurance Through Aon's New Program

 Kai Steward works in the technology department as a part of a new program through Aon and Harold Washington College.
Kai Steward works in the technology department as a part of a new program through Aon and Harold Washington College.
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Michael Melche/Aon

CHATHAM — Ed Richardson had a job as a security officer, but he was looking for something that would pay better.

The 25-year-old Chatham native, who now lives in Uptown, looked through online job listings for something that would provide training since he'd never held a corporate job. 

“I was scrolling almost every morning,” he said.

One day he was skimming through the recommended jobs when one caught his attention: an apprenticeship program sponsored by Harold Washington College and Aon, a global provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance, human resources and outsourcing services.

The Harold Washington student decided to apply. He said the program seemed perfect.

Ed Richardson in class at Harold Washington College [Provided/Michael Melcher]

The program launched in January, and Richardson was one of 25 students selected. The apprentices receive a salary, full-time benefits, on-the-job training, free college tuition and an associate degree. Once they finish the two-year program, they are offered full-time jobs at Aon.

The students are given the option to gain experience in areas such as account management, client support, financial analysis, human resources or information technology.

Richardson works as a claim analyst and said he’s been catching on quickly. He said he loves the program.

“I’m very passionate about this program,” he said, because it “changed my life, and it can change so many others.”

Programs like these are great, and more are needed, Richardson said. They show students how their classroom experience transfers into the real world.

“I go to class, and I know what I’m learning now,” Richardson said. “I get A’s. I pay attention in English so I can send better emails. When I get to school I know I’m sharpening myself to be better at my job. ... It all makes sense.”

His goal is to earn a master's in business administration from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

Unlike Richardson, Kai Steward wasn’t actively looking for a job. The 22-year-old Little Italy resident enrolled at Harold Washington in the fall, not sure which career path to take.

The school sent out an email to students about the program and she decided to apply.

Because she had already taken some computer science courses, she said she opted to apply to the tech apprenticeship.

“I was so happy, and it took a moment to sink in,” Steward said. “I applied, but didn't really think they would get back to me.”

She’s learning how to process tickets when employees have issues with their computers, and she answers tech-related questions and helps people set up new computers.

Before participating in the program, Steward was unsure of what she wanted to do. She said she was still figuring things out, but now she’s beginning to feel more certain about her future.

She’s interested in technology and she’s planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

Bridget Gainer, vice president of global public affairs at Aon, spearheads the program. She said the company has had a relationship with Harold Washington for about four years and was ready to take it to another level.

“We had a desire to do more in Chicago,” Gainer said. “We felt it was time to step up and do more than what we had done before.

“It’s common in Europe to go from high school to an apprenticeship, so we said 'Let’s take that model and bring it to Chicago,'” she said.

There also was the recognition that Chicago has hurdles for some who want access to great careers at a big company, she said. Aon wanted to remove those.

Gainer said that Aon would like to see other companies copy Aon's model now that they see it works. The goal is to expand to other City Colleges.

The program will begin accepting applications for its second group this summer.