How the insurance sector is viewed by others can depend on the training staff are given. Up to now this has been hit and miss, but more people are attaching importance to quality of education and qualifications, and they are demanding improvements

Insurance has often been accused of lagging behind rival markets when it comes to attracting talented recruits and investing in staff.

But there are signs – on the surface at least – that the industry is trying to shift its ‘Johnny come lately’ reputation by striving to promote better professional standards.

A survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters last month revealed that the industry is set to take on more graduates than last year – bucking the trend across the rest of the economy.

So far so good. But given the insurance sector’s dismal record in attracting and nurturing talent, it could be argued that it is starting from a relatively low base when it comes to succession planning.

Furthermore, while the industry might have recently stepped up its rate of graduate recruitment, many firms may be just filling the void left by the staff cull during the financial crisis rather than trying to expand or develop expertise.

Stuck in a corner

According to the CII, 44,135 people within the insurance sector have some form of insurance qualification. But, according to the Office of National Statistics, there are more than 210,000 people working in the insurance sector, meaning that barely a fifth of the sector’s workforce has some form of recognised insurance qualification.

Consequently, not all in the sector are convinced that the drive towards increasing standards is fast enough.

Brokerbility chairman Ashwin Mistry argues that it should become mandatory for senior management to have an insurance qualification. “We are just beginning to scrape the surface,” he says. “I can see people beginning to talk about it but I have yet to see any empirical evidence that it is happening. We all talk a good game in different ways but this remains a problem across the broking fraternity.”

Ravenhall Risk Solutions director Neil Grimshaw believes that while professional development may be heavily promoted by some companies, the reality is different. “I did a graduate trainee scheme at a broker, and I may as well have been stuck in a corner not doing any training at all. If I hadn’t taken the initiative to learn, I wouldn’t still be in this industry,” he says.

Ecclesiastical has recently launched an academy programme for sales training. Regional manager Paul Lee argues that more companies need to start taking action rather than merely waxing lyrical about professional development.

He believes the onus is on companies to create innovative training schemes, pointing out that the Ecclesiastical sales academy has helped the insurer increase new business by 13% and boosted revenue by 18%.

Grimshaw adds that one of the main problems facing the sector, particularly smaller outfits, is the cost of training. “There is a cost to formalised qualifications and continuous professional development. However, the hardest thing for a small business of our size is the time: we struggle to provide our guys with time off and study leave.”

He points out that the recent decline of local trainee schemes has made it more difficult for some smaller regional brokers to take up training, but adds that larger companies with greater resources do not always offer greater career development. “We have taken on people from larger organisations because they don’t feel as if they are able to move themselves on within the industry and within that organisation,” he says.

There is also the danger that the training offered by a company will not suit an employee with potential. For many firms, the gold standard of professional development remains a CII qualification, but some question the current exam structure.

Proper investment

Lee argues that the route to a qualification should become more vocational, rather than academic, reflecting the day-to-day training of a working broker. “The current structure will continue to deliver what it has always delivered, a patchwork of qualifications with some people doing them and some not,” he says.

Elsewhere, Bartlett group director Lynda Michel, who reviewed a CII textbook on property insurance, is concerned that some course material may not be relevant to modern broking.

“I was very disturbed by the standard of this book. It had just been rebadged – but so much was out of date. For students studying such an important topic, this should have been done properly,” she explains.

She adds that when she raised her concerns the CII told her it was too late to fully revise the book. “There is so much talk about professional development but not proper investment. For the people taking this topic, the quality of the material was very poor.”

It is not just the quality of insurance qualifications that is an issue. Consultancy AOMi’s managing director Neil Bentley, who has worked with insurers NFU Mutual, Hiscox and LV=, argues that management training also continues to fall by the wayside in insurance.

“We are beginning to see that management is a professional discipline in itself,” he says, adding that some technical experts do not always find it easy to move into management. He says some people who are promoted “think the best thing they can do for their team is to take all the difficult jobs. So rather than co-ordinate and manage their team, they end up with their own workload, and then nobody is managing”.

Furthermore, he points out that many firms still fear that training and development could be a waste of money. “Investing in professional development is a positive for staff retention. Everyone worries that they are training their competitors, but that is rarely the case. Employees like to stay with a company that is investing in them.”

Consultant Fairplace’s regional client director Jayne Harrison, who helped NFU Mutual launch a career management strategy to help them save £500,000, warns that scrimping on development could be a false economy. She adds that a lot of firms spend time identifying their top 10% of staff without looking to motivate others. This, she says, can have a bad effect on productivity, lead to more absenteeism and see many staff with potential walking out the door. According to Harrison, mentoring, regular appraisals and offering career pathways are cost-effective ways to motivate and engage.

Grimshaw adds that ultimately – and despite the many challenges surrounding training and development – the onus is on those within insurance to ensure that it raises professional standards. “The only people who can create a profession out of an industry are the people in it. It is down to us to have professional staff and to ensure that we are viewed as professional by the general public.” IT