“I would say I’ve had somewhat of a nontraditional career,” says Allison Oncel, senior director of global benefits at L3Harris Technologies. Oncel trained to be a social worker but decided to pivot early on in her career, which sent her down a path of constant learning and growth—all while putting her people skills to good use.
Oncel majored in psychology at the University of Delaware and went on to earn her master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland Baltimore. She trained to be an employee assistance program counselor and found her first job at a managed behavioral healthcare company called Value Options. She offered on-the-spot, over-the-phone counseling to employees of large corporations and also provided consultation services to human resources managers dealing with challenging employee situations.
Four years into her career, after earning her first-level license, Oncel made the jump to change her path. “I came to a point after four years when I realized that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” Oncel explains. “All my education and training and experience up until then was focused on the narrow space of clinical social work. So I thought, ‘Now what?’”
Oncel turned her “Now what?” into an opportunity to branch out of her department and into a marketing and proposals role within the same company. Though she didn’t have any formal training in that area, her first-person experience made her an asset to the team. “They took a chance on me because they thought it was valuable that I understood the inner workings of the services our company delivered, since I was actually performing the work firsthand,” Oncel explains.
Eventually, Oncel was recruited by APS Healthcare to head its marketing and proposal department. There, she directed all corporate marketing and proposal activities and provided leadership of more than 100 proposal projects per year.
When APS Healthcare moved its headquarters to New York, Oncel decided she wanted to go in a different direction and began looking at new options. She went through many rounds of interviews at aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin, only to be turned down. Her interviewer made a point of calling her to let her know what a difficult choice it was for him but that he would keep her mind for the future.
“When we do harmonization, sometimes things move one way or the other, but it can also be an opportunity to do something completely different.”
At the time, Oncel figured his response was just a common courtesy—until a few years later, when that same person called her out of the blue. He had moved to aerospace, defense, information, and services company Exelis, where he had been tasked with building out the company’s global benefits department. “He told me he had always regretted not hiring me and offered me the opportunity to help him lead the new department,” Oncel explains.
Oncel took the job but once again found herself in a position with a serious learning curve. “The job description was literally nothing I’d ever done before,” she says. “It was an HR role in benefits, which didn’t relate directly to my prior experience.” With the mentoring of her employer, she picked up the business quickly and was soon handling the benefits for more than ten thousand employees and nearly just as many retirees at Exelis.
Exelis was acquired by Harris Corporation in 2015, which meant handling the harmonization of the organization’s benefits program. As it turned out, that was only a warm-up. In 2019, Harris Corporation merged with L3 Technologies. For Oncel, that meant harmonizing benefits on a global scale for nearly fifty thousand employees in just six months, followed by taking on an expanded role within the newly combined company overseeing the global benefits function.
“I feel like I have some really good experience under my belt,” Oncel reflects, now having gone through two large-scale mergers and acquisitions. “It’s an exciting process, and it’s also a great opportunity to take a fresh look. When we do harmonization, sometimes things move one way or the other, but it can also be an opportunity to do something completely different.”
Oncel’s varied professional experience continues to prove invaluable to her role at L3Harris. Having worked for so long on the vendor side of healthcare that she knows the ins and outs of the business and the complexities behind all the products and services. “I feel like I kind of switched teams,” jokes Oncel. “I have to say I much prefer being on this side. It has many more elements to it, and you also get to call the shots, so to speak.”
Even Oncel’s training as a social worker continues to inform the sensitivity that she brings to her work in global benefits. She never fails to appreciate the personal nature of benefits—particularly healthcare. Though she doesn’t have daily interactions with most employees, she knows how important it is that employees feel that they and their families are taken care of.
“Benefits can be a very passionate topic. People have different needs and depend on the benefits we provide to meet those needs,” Oncel explains.
While social work gave Oncel a knack for working with people, benefits gave her a knack for working for people to meet certain needs. Much like her recent initiatives to bring together separate companies on a large scale, Oncel’s two worlds harmonize perfectly. The people component, she says, is the greatest “common thread.”
When two large companies merge, there are challenges and opportunities. American Benefits Consulting, an Alliant Insurance Services Company was pleased and privileged to work with L3Harris, supporting Allison and her colleagues throughout the process. Our main objectives were to ensure the existing benefit programs were well-documented, and the new designs are comprehensive and cost-effective.