One of the most serious problems facing the insurance industry today is the acute shortage of bright, college-educated young people entering the profession. Walk around any college campus, and you'll find that the brightest and best of our graduates are not thinking insurance. Talk to them about careers, and you'll hear "computers," "finance," "banking," "law," "marketing," "medicine"--all the so-called "glamour" professions. Rarely will you hear "insurance" or "risk management."
But insurance is one of the biggest and most diverse industries. It involves--and, indeed, couldn't operate without--people trained in finance and banking, medicine, marketing, engineering, advertising, computer science and law, as well as people with underwriting, actuarial and management skills.
Insurance, in fact, encompasses more of the "glamour" professions than any other industry in America.
Why, then, isn't the industry glamorous enough to attract young people? The answer, in short, is poor public relations. The insurance industry suffers from a negative image. Its work is rarely thought of as creative or intellectually demanding. "Dull" is more like it. Yet those professionals who are involved in the industry, who have made it their life's work, know that nothing could be further from the truth.
Part of the problem is that insurance is one of the oldest industries, with the roots of property insurance going back to ancient China and Babylonia thousands of years ago. Even the modern form of insurance dates back to England in the 1680s. But old doesn't have to mean stodgy, though many young people apparently think it does. Insurance is as modern and high-tech as any other financial industry today--and any insurance-related business that doesn't keep up with technology will soon be out of business.
Too many college graduates think of insurance strictly in terms of sales. Their knowledge of the industry is based on very limited personal experience or, worse yet, hearsay. They've never even heard of commercial insurance. The only kind of insurance they may know much about is personal auto insurance or life insurance--and the stereotype of the pushy insurance salesman is unfortunately still very much with us.
Part of the problem is that we've fouled our own nest. While there are many dedicated and knowledgeable people in the field, the sad truth is that the few bad apples often overshadow the majority of good professionals. Recent scandals regarding bid-rigging at some of the nation's biggest brokers have once again damaged the industry's reputation.
Fortunately, the industry and regulators have moved aggressively to kick the bad actors out of the industry and shut down unethical practices. This is one of our industry's great strengths. We make mistakes and learn from them.
While the damage from recent scandals may be short-lived, there's still the old image of the insurance salesman as a grasping, aggressive and possibly even unscrupulous person--eager to sell, but reluctant to help with a claim. This stereotype is based on ignorance. But ignorance is something we have the power to correct.
We need to change our image. And we can change it by launching a massive public relations and advertising program to educate the public and make people, particularly college and high-school students, aware of what the industry is really all about.
If we wait until students are in their junior or senior year of college, it's too late. The industry should help educators nationally develop a curriculum that would teach high-school students--starting in their freshman year--about the insurance industry's positive key role in our society.
Who could develop such a curriculum? I believe it can be accomplished through a national private-public alliance. A grand educational alliance should encompass the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, insurer groups like the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, agent-broker associations like the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, and the Risk and Insurance Management Society.
Company and agent groups could train and furnish instructors who would go into our public schools. They'd both teach and serve as living, breathing role models. Students would see that insurance people are hip, personable and successful.
On a local level, a city or state could develop a model educational program. It would make perfect sense for Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York--a leader with a superb business background--to spearhead such an effort in the world's leading financial center.
Such a curriculum would cover the basics of risk transfer and why it is a foundation of civilization. The course could start with the basics of auto, home and life insurance--certainly young people would be interested in knowing more auto insurance--and then segue into commercial insurance, risk management and loss control.
We need to tell young people that personal insurance is just one segment of our industry, and that sales is only one of the many attractive careers available in it. We need to let students and their advisers know about business insurance and risk management, and about the many opportunities in it for men and women with talent, ambition and skills. We need to make our future M.B.A., law, marketing and engineering students aware that insurance is the very cornerstone of our economy that makes all other commerce possible, and continually demonstrate to them that people with talent can go far and have profitable, rewarding careers in insurance.
In my efforts to recruit young staff for my company, I have traveled to many campuses. I have found it easier to sell insurance to many of the Fortune 500 corporations than to sell a single outstanding student on a career in insurance.
To change that, we need to dramatize our story. If we are going to recruit on campus, we must emphasize the creative challenges facing the industry today. And we must do it in a sophisticated, contemporary way, taking advantage of the Web, blogs and podcasts, along with seminars and fun events highlighting the industry's past achievements and current challenges. We need to show that insurance and risk management offer exciting, vibrant careers.
Features must be developed for the media pointing out how the industry strengthens companies and preserves communities. Our message to the academic community must focus on the positive--including the role of risk management and how risk professionals improve safety to save lives and protect homes and businesses.
Let's talk about the kind of research and creative thinking that allows for the development of innovative insurance products to protect against new risks like terrorism. Let's act, rather than react. We are living in an age in which technology seems too often to have gotten out of control, as we spend endless hours checking e-mail on our personal digital assistants and laptops. While technology is crucial in insurance and risk management, it takes skilled humans to use that technology successfully and apply the human touch.
Everyone in the insurance and risk management fields knows very well that it is dynamic, not dull. We know that our work is challenging and rewarding, personally and professionally fulfilling--and addictive. It's time we stopped keeping all that a secret.
The baby boomer generation, starting to retire already, will retire en masse over the next decade, and the insurance industry will experience a huge outflow of intellectual capital.
I've been writing about the industry's skill shortfall since the late 1970s. It's not too late to act, but the window of opportunity is about to slam shut.
If the profession is to thrive in the 21st century, we must embark now on a campaign to develop and attract the best talent available. Our future, and the future of the industry as a whole, depends on it.
ERNESTA G. PROCOPE is president and CEO of E.G. Bowman Co. Inc., an insurance brokerage and loss-control firm in New York City.
December 1, 2006
Copyright 2006© LRP Publications