With companies making a great effort to attract graduates and school leavers, Caroline Jordan reports on how the industry is tackling its reputation.

'The prospect of working in insurance interests most people as much as listening to a pre-recorded FSA regulatory speech. This is an industry with a bigger image problem than David Gest. And even most of the industry high flyers sheepishly admit: "I fell into it."

So, hurrah! The CII has launched its talent initiative which promises to bring much needed new blood into the sector.

It was launched at the institute's recent conference and according to director of communications Steve Wellard: "Insurance isn't seen as compelling. People think paper shuffling and call centres."

The initiative will work initially with universities and later schools and employers. It will also encourage firms to create a "professional environment" and increase the amount of training they offer.

The CII's research conducted in 2005 with Cass Business School showed that there is indeed an image crisis in insurance.

It revealed some 90% of students would not consider a career in insurance, 80% of recruiters do not give on-campus presentations and 75% of employers fail to attract the talent they are looking for.

The CII has set up a Talent Taskforce, which is headed by Chris Hanks, commercial general manager of Allianz Cornhill Commercial.

These senior people, combined with HR professionals and young stars working with the industry will talk at careers events. Supporters include Biba, LMA, AIG, Allianz Cornhill, AXA, Royal & SunAlliance, Zurich, Groupama, RBS Insurance and NFU Mutual.

A brochure - The Insurance Industry - A Great Place To Work - and information pack have also been produced to spread the message, together with a new website, careers in insurance.

Some ambitious targets have been set. Wellard wants to see the number of graduates making a conscious decision to join the industry rise from 10% to 30% within five years and 1,000 graduates entering the industry a year.

Although insurers appear to be represented most strongly in the task force, Wellard says that brokers and adjusters are also getting involved. "Recently representatives from broking group Oval attended Nottingham University to speak to students. Loss adjuster AMG is also active in talking about its graduate training programme and working with local schools and colleges."

He adds that companies can get involved in a variety of ways. AIG has, for example, supplied a signed Manchester United football shirt as a competition prize at careers fairs.

Bill Paton, chief claims officer at Zurich, is a strong supporter of the initiative. "This has to be a long haul project and we must not lose momentum. The CII has got its act together, but we all have to do more."

He adds that if standards are to be improved existing staff must also be more highly trained.

Zurich has just announced it will now put all its employees through CII training. The aim is for staff to achieve chartered insurer status within five years.

The programme, called the Zurich Membership Proposition, is being run in conjunction with the CII.

Paton adds: "We have to grow our own talent as well as look at attracting new people."

But, training over and above what is necessary is not only costly, but can also lead to more staff being poached.

Paton counters: "It happens, but you have to get on with it. I think it is complementary. The best way you can keep people is to pay them top quality salaries and ensure they benefit from personal development."

AMG training manager Malcolm Hyde comments: "We are championing the talent initiative. It is about making insurance a deliberate choice as a career. We run our own in-house scheme to improve skills and competencies and have a graduate training programme. We also talk to schools and colleges."

He adds that companies wanting help with training should talk to the CII direct. "They are very encouraging and have acted as a sounding board for us." But, some are more cautious about the CII's initiative focus on graduates. To date, the institute has produced material for 240 universities. Wellard says: "In the next two to three years, we'll be getting involved with schools and colleges. But, there are 12,000 to 15,000 of these and this will take a lot of resources."

Even so, some question whether so many graduates are even needed. Ian Jerrum, managing director of training company Searchlight Solutions, says: "Even if the CII attracts 1,000 graduates, who says there will be jobs for them? With the current round of redundancies, consolidation and offshoring, it does not seem likely. I am a bit sceptical about this."

Dumbed down

He also challenges the fact that the CII appears willing to talk to any graduates about insurance as a career. "They should look at the relevance of the degree. Some courses are so dumbed down and only require half the amount of study as at a traditional redbrick university. You also have to ask if graduates will be interested in the common or garden jobs - yet these people still need good training."

Wellard argues however that the CII should not just focus on business graduates. "There are a lot of insurance jobs that are not technical, HR, CSR or marketing, for example. We want to attract a range of disciplines." And, Hyde explains that one of AMG's best performing graduate trainees studied Russian.

Meanwhile, Jerrum is a fan of the CII's renewed focus on training. "There is a lot of potential to do more. For brokers, one of the best initiatives has been local training clubs. AXA, for example, runs some excellent ones across the UK. Many brokers want to train their staff but are held back by the cost. I would like to see the CII focus on making training affordable and accessible rather than trying to hit the headlines."

And Ian Mantel, principal of broker Manor Insurance, comments: "I'm very positive about the CII raising awareness of insurance careers and its focus on training is to be applauded, but there is too much emphasis on graduates. How are brokers going to pay their salaries? The money it is spending on going to universities should instead go into grass roots initiatives and helping brokers train their staff - we have the foundations already, let's build on them."

Alan Russell, marketing and development director with broker Bruce Stevenson, says: "We've taken on some graduates but tend to go more for A-level students - graduates want higher salaries.

"We're increasingly going to schools and colleges to talk to students. There is a lot of scope for brokers to develop their own people - we take training very seriously. Insurance companies tend to be doing less local training and so brokers are needing to spend more. This is a good initiative, but we all have to take responsibility for succession planning."

Wellard says the CII will press on with the talent initiative. "There is no other way. It is certainly not just about graduates. We must also address demographics and diversity - we need to bring in people who would not normally consider insurance.

"This means more women and those from ethnic backgrounds. Let's tackle our reputation and allow more people to see the opportunities."