More than a quarter of the U.S. working population will be old enough to retire in less than three years. Add this flight to an average job stay of four years, and businesses in America are at risk. America is poised for a brain drain so dramatic that many companies will find themselves unprepared. The insurance industry, so reliant on intellectual capital, must be at the forefront of addressing this important demographic trend.
Here are solutions companies can take to manage looming intellectual losses.
Analyze workforce strengths.
If only a few co-workers know an employee's expertise, then it is useless to the organization as a whole. This knowledge becomes an information silo, a vertical information cluster not transmitted laterally to co-workers. Analyzing employees' expertise and knowledge and categorizing it so that it becomes accessible by other employees is critical to improving and strengthening your workforce.
Determine which employees are flight risks.
Talk openly with employees considering retirement or home/work difficulties to determine how you can retain them. Flexibility is the key--the employee may need more time off, greater leeway to work noncore hours or to work at home. If the Family and Medical Leave Act is voluntary, consider allowing FMLA leave. Offer incentives to delay an employee's departure.
Prepare to replace exiting information agents when those employees retire.
In smaller organizations, this process may be informal, but larger companies must develop a process to both recognize the intellectual loss and replace it. Companies must develop time frames and provide incentives so that newer information agents can become experts on specific topics before the need arises.
Hire retiring employees as consultants.
With the increasing cost of medical care for retirees, many welcome a supplement to their retirement income. Adding benefit package components that appeal to older workers, such as long-term-care insurance or prorated health coverage for part-time work, may also help retain them.
Use technology to drive intercompany communications.
Intranets, videoconferencing, peer-to-peer technology and podcasts are information portals that allow workers to communicate over varying time zones. Encourage workers to develop virtual relationships to share ideas and solve problems using these tools.
Establish "practice communities" where individuals meet to solve problems.
With today's technology, organizations do not have to rely solely on local talent. A companywide initiative can be implemented by your organization's information-technology department. Practice communities build virtual relationships, which in turn make employees feel more connected to the organization.
Organize practice community results with wikis, a collaboration Web application.
There are several sites dedicated to collaborative writing, including www.writeboard.com and www.writer.zoho.com. Visit www.wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia written by collaboration, to view an example of wiki technology at its finest.
Implement a mentoring program.
Enlightened insurance organizations have implemented mentoring programs. The National Association of Catastrophe Adjusters (www.nacatadj.org) formed a mentoring program in 2005, which matches new adjusters eager to learn CAT adjusting with experienced field adjusters.
Pool knowledge across organizations.
Your Encore, founded by The Procter & Gamble Co. and Eli Lilly and Co., is a society of retired research scientists and engineers who provide consulting services. The insurance industry is particularly well suited to this approach because risk pools changed the face of insurance, so the models to implement this approach are already well accepted by our industry.
Build a culture that values expertise.
To prevent brain drain, an organization must develop an atmosphere that values aging workers and the knowledge they possess. Recognizing, but more importantly, acknowledging, their overall contributions to the organization, not just the number of claims they close or the amount of new business they produce, may mean keeping employees just a few years longer.
Encourage employees to join online insurance groups like RiskList or PRIMA-Watch.
Insurance professionals are notoriously generous with their time and information, as any industry employee knows who belongs to a professional organization. Insurance server lists have been online for many years with a faithful membership. List members will respond to just about any inquiry with an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge, with some humor thrown in as well.
Support membership in professional organizations.
"Support" means paying dues and supporting the absences necessary for employees to both attend conferences and to hold committee positions. More enlightened managers realize that, if employees feel valued for their expertise and encouraged in their professional development, they are generally more loyal to their employers.
Offer incentives for obtaining professional designations and attend class.
According to the CPCU Society, in 2006, 88 percent of CPCUs were 40 or older. Taking a class from an experienced instructor with students from other disciplines gives students a much broader experience. Designations are a clear indicator that employees view insurance not just as a job, but as a career.
Avoid the human resources "silo."
Human resources departments often act as "silos," gatekeepers in the hiring process, by determining which applicants are interviewed. Form interdepartmental hiring panels, teams that develop job descriptions, review applications, and give input on hiring and other issues like employee retention.
Don't underestimate the impact of generational gaps.
There are four generations of workers in today's diverse workforce. Intergenerational teams can bring divergent employees together where they can benefit from each others' strengths, not just complain about weaknesses. Technologically proficient younger workers who are good communicators can train older workers in new technology to bridge two gaps--the generation gap and the technology gap. In turn, older workers can mentor younger employees and model appropriate, ethical behavior.
Consider the Total Cost of Jerks.
Verbal abuse, intimidation and bullying are widespread in the American workforce. Some companies are taking notice. There is a growing trend to consider the TCJ impact on the workforce, including several organizations on Fortune's "100 Best Places to Work."
Older workers don't always have the patience to put up with twits. That jerk in the cubicle next to a long-term employee may be the final nudge that pushes a valued older worker out the door.
Don't overlook diversity.
Many employees are overlooked in the promotional process because they are different than the dominant makeup of an organization. Whites follow a different career path than their nonwhite counterparts, according to David A. Thomas, an expert on minority mentoring. Whites frequently get more attention from their managers and, hence, more opportunities. If we fail in our organizations to see beyond employees' gender, skin color or religious beliefs, we may overlook our brightest talent.
Effective organizational change begins with a plan.
To address brain drain, a company must develop a strong vision and a stronger plan. From top management down, there must be a shared sense of urgency to this problem, because any critical initiative can go astray with the competition all organizations face in today's market. To solve the coming talent crunch, organizations must commit the resources to tackle this problem strategically, while there is still time.
NANCY GERMOND, ARM, AIC, is a writer based in Jefferson City, Mo., and online at www.insurancewriter.com.
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October 1, 2007
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