A model program
It takes an insurance village to raise an insurance child
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
The numbers are frightening. And I’m not talking about the economy. No, I’m talking about the aging of the insurance profession. Many of us are reaching the age when, if the economy were better and our 401(k)s weren’t circling the drain, we would be considering retirement.
At some point, we will be leaving the insurance industry for one reason or another. And when the Baby Boomer generation starts its exodus in earnest, it could leave a huge void in the ranks. As was mentioned in my previous article on the War for Talent (Rough Notes October 2008), our industry will need to find approximately 90,000 new employees a year, and we’re not doing a bang-up job of preparing people for insurance employment, or of enticing the non-trained to enter the wonderful world of insurance.
If you take a random sample of current employees in the insurance industry, you will find very few who started out planning to have an insurance career. When I have asked people how they got into insurance, the answers have ranged from: “I sinned greatly in a previous life” to, “My dad was in the business and I needed a job” to, “I interned at an agency and was amazed how much fun it was.”
At the same time, many of these people admit somewhat grudgingly that it was a happy misstep that led them to the industry, because it is indeed an industry that provides much needed help to people when they are facing what could otherwise be a devastating tragedy.
What is clear is that we cannot continue to count on happenstance to fill the positions being vacated by retiring Boomers. The knowledge contained in those addled pates needs to be transferred and understood by a new generation that has not seen the cycles that can wreak havoc on insurance company and agency balance sheets.
Without this knowledge, new underwriters can find themselves wearing the dark eyeshades of the undertaker or the rosy-hued lenses of the eternal optimist, depending on which part of the cycle was prevalent when they learned their craft. The same problem will impact new producers looking for markets for their clients.
Meanwhile, those of us still in the industry are wont to complain that we’re running so fast that we just don’t have the time to train people, especially when many of them wind up leaving our company or the industry altogether.
In actuality, a small mutual company in upstate New York has shown that it doesn’t take that much time if we work together. Our insurance village really can raise an insurance child.
Robert B. Baxter, CPCU, CIC, chief executive officer and general manager of Dryden Mutual Insurance Co., Dryden, New York, was first exposed to an InVEST program at Fowler High School in Syracuse when he was a branch manager for General Accident. When Bob joined Dryden Mutual in 1993, “I wanted to start a program here. I met with one of the teachers at Dryden High School, Linda Bruno, who liked the idea of a program about insurance but pointed out that it couldn’t be a five-day a week class.”
That turned out not to be a problem. InVEST is a malleable program that provides the resources necessary to implement insurance education curricula at the high school, junior college and college levels. Nothing is carved in stone. In fact, the administrators of the program recognize that almost every one of the 235 InVEST programs across the country differs due to geographic location, community need or some other factor. But the mission—to provide insurance education that will produce knowledgeable employees or customers for the insurance industry—remains consistent.
Bob worked with the high school and InVEST to come up with an approach that would work for his area’s unique circumstances. “We based the program on an introduction to insurance book produced by the Insurance Institute of America. It covered the various occupations in insurance and we developed a guest lecturer series with a different speaker for each of the 11 chapters in the book. Each of the speakers just had to talk about what they did every day. I gave that textbook to Linda and asked if that approach was acceptable. It sounded good to her and our program was born.”
Several of the speakers came from Dryden Mutual where the reluctance by some of the people who were approached was overcome by the fact that Bob was the head of the company, he notes with a bit of tongue in cheek. “It was interesting that some of the people who had faced down attorneys in courtroom situations were afraid to speak in front of a bunch of teenagers. It actually turned out that it was a piece of cake and all of the speakers from that first year are still doing it and enjoying it. I also went to some local agencies where there was almost no reluctance. Agents love to talk. And so do I,” Bob admits, noting that “I took two of the topics.”
That essentially comprised the first year of the program.
Building on success
“In 1994, we decided to keep moving ahead,” Bob continues, “by adding job shadowing. The students went to the offices where the speakers worked. We arranged public transportation to get them to the agencies. It really started to generate some excitement at that point. Linda liked what was happening and so did the insurance professionals who were involved in the program. We enjoyed great community goodwill and exposure in the school system.
“We also began hiring students to work for us on a part-time basis,” Bob says. “When a full-time position opened up a couple of years later, I approached a young woman who had been through the program. She was attending the community college. I knew she was a good worker and that she knew something about the business.”
And that started another phase in the InVEST program. “Every year, we have one or two job openings and almost every one of those has been filled by an InVEST student,” Bob says. Today, 25% of the employees at Dryden Mutual are InVEST graduates.
But wait, there’s more
At this point, some of you who may share my own skeptical nature are probably saying “So what? What difference does a program in some small town in New York mean to me?”
Well, it turns out that the program proved to be contagious. Linda Bruno started bragging about the program to other teachers in the area. In 1995, Groton, New York, added an InVEST program to their high school curricula and worked with local agents to provide speakers. A year later, Lansing and Ithaca started programs. In 1997, Trumansburg started a program that was spearheaded by Finger Lakes Fire & Casualty, which has its headquarters in that town. McGraw High School in McGraw, New York, started a program in 2007 after one of its teachers, Pam Coombs, talked to InVEST students from Dryden who were attending an “I Day” in Syracuse, New York.
“Pam had heard about the program for years,” Bob says. “But she wasn’t interested until she talked to the students. She was floored by what they had to say. She heard how each and every speaker impressed the students with the fact that they liked their jobs and that they were helping people. The students talked about the job shadowing and how they saw that the jobs were interesting and that the people seemed to want to go to work every day. They weren’t just there because they had to be.”
Bob concludes: “The key point is that this is a program that can work anywhere, it doesn’t cost very much and it’s not that time-consuming. At its worst, the program sends out students who are financially literate and understand and appreciate the importance of insurance in our society. At its best, we reach some talented students who might have gone elsewhere and bring them in to the insurance industry.
“Teachers are extraordinarily enthusiastic once they see it played out,” he continues. “In addition, the InVEST curricula fit very well with the current push to introduce financial literacy within the public school systems. But to be really successful, it must be an insurance community effort. If we can do it here in Dryden, it can be done anywhere.”