The economy is tanking. The insurance market is soft. Revenue is off. "Let's just cut education spending for now to help balance things out." How many times have insurance business leaders uttered--or at least thought--these words? Too often, such cuts are merely indicative of the philosophy many executives hold: Employee education is an expense, not an investment. This view is part of what ails professional education programs today. But it's not all that's wrong.
Employers often fail to think strategically about education. Training and education--and career development, for that matter--are short-term initiatives in many organizations. Too little planning goes into career paths and the professional education required to prepare employees for what lies ahead. The negative effects show up in different forms.
Licensed agents find themselves at the 11th hour (or 11th or 23rd month) taking continuing-education programs that meet state requirements but offer little else. I know. I've tested them. A few years ago, I signed up for an online CE course that promised a quick and easy way to fulfill licensing obligations, and "earned" two hours of CE credit in 15 minutes flat.
Employee retention is impacted too. In my role, I've talked with a number of agencies and brokerages that hire young people who, after just six months on the job, believe they're ready to move up. Eagerness is admirable, but when career progress slows, these employees become impatient and bolt. A recent Salary.com job satisfaction/retention survey says lack of professional development is one of the top five reasons employees look to move.
Employers and their staff suffer when they lose sight of the value of professional education. Providers lose when their customers put employee development and training on the back burner.
To address professional education problems, a concerted and cooperative effort is required. Employers, staff and providers need to work together to improve the process and value of employee education.
At the agency or brokerage level, a shift must occur. Education should not be a budget yo-yo. Tougher economic times and competitive market conditions call for a more educated, proficient and loyal staff.A strategic approach to professional education is key. Lip service doesn't cut it.
Agencies and brokerages looking for organic growth must realize that it's their employees that make them money. People differentiate one agency from another. Invest in them.
Employers need to work with new employees to identify possible career direction and spell out what education and, if appropriate, certifications will drive this advancement. When no career path is in place--or where employees aren't aware that one exists--professional education takes on a haphazard approach.
Without such planning and direction, training becomes a reactive, piecemeal exercise. Employees catch wind of a program that sounds interesting, and ask to take it. It could "sound interesting" for any of a number of reasons, including the fact that it's presented in Miami or Las Vegas in January.
A better approach is to apply logic to the education track. For instance, if employees want to become commercial lines producers in an organization that employs a consultative selling model, plot a course that combines training in insurance products, risk management and customer relationship management. Establish milestones and gauge progress against them. This planning may also help control costs; it keeps employees from taking courses that don't meet their needs and presents a stronger foundation for negotiating with providers.
It's important to reinforce formal education with mentoring--something that is lacking in too many agencies and brokerages. Well-planned and supported mentoring programs complement classroom and other education and can reduce the time required to achieve employee proficiency. Standardize and formalize these programs and provide mentors the tools, resources, freedom and, especially, time to do the work. Get ideas on successful mentoring approaches from professional education and certification providers, associations, and other agents and brokers.
Employees must be part of professional education planning too. Beyond content needs, each knows his or her learning style best. Some, like me, may be prone to bouts of attention deficit and may work best with programs offered in modules and using varied presentation methods. Others would be content sitting, reading and filling in blanks for hours. Some may find audio learning fits well with their commuting situation. Others--those with young children or those who travel regularly for work--may opt for online courses that can be accessed at odd hours, from home or hotel rooms.
Staff needs to focus on the "why" of professional education and certifications. That means identifying and getting valuable CE credit--one where the time spent learning meets or exceeds the hours granted and where the value extends well beyond a license renewal date.
This focus extends to the client as well. Professional-education planning requires employees to think about the role training will play in their ability to serve clients. For instance, if a producer wants to really understand and meet customer needs, he or she needs to make sure coursework in risk management, needs assessment and understanding customer business challenges are part of the professional education plan.
Education and certification providers must recognize these needs and step up to the plate to help address them. Take into account the reality and severity of economic forces and resulting budget pressures. Offer flexibility in learning options and consider financial incentives to encourage broader participation.
Develop a clear understanding of the value of employer and employee planning, and contribute to the creation and adoption of career paths. Clearly spell out the learning that supports them. Offer coursework that contributes to the personal professional development or partner with other providers that do so. Communicate career paths and educational opportunities to students and employers alike.
As you recognize the time constraints that impact many students and take into account the industry's economic burdens, continue to broaden delivery options. Include Web (interactive and on-demand), audio, self-paced and in-house learning options, in addition to more traditional methods. Each of these benefits different learners in different ways. Some providers have done quite well in this regard. Others could do better.
Redouble efforts to support formal mentoring programs. Work with clients or client groups to help them see the importance of these, and then provide resources--mentoring plans and guides--to help make these programs work.
Research and document the value of learning and then communicate this information to employers. Make a business case for professional education and certifications. Demonstrate the positive impact on revenue growth, efficiency, profitability, reduced errors and omissions and greater customer satisfaction. By doing so, providers can help employers understand the benefits of consistent training and help them view employee education as an investment and not merely an expense.
Finally, make sure content meets the needs of today's employers and their employees and customers. For instance, incorporate current technologies and workflows in your coursework and demonstrate how learning delivers real and lasting benefits to end customers. In today's fast-paced society, education must provide not only theory, but practical application, as well.
RIC MAZON is vice president, education, at Assurex Global, a privately held risk management, commercial insurance and employee benefits brokerage group.
June 1, 2008
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