With workers in insurance changing their jobs more frequently, seeking out the best talent to fill the vacancies is becoming ever more important. Christine Seib finds out about the best techniques.

The hole left at Axa by Mark Wood's departure is a high-profile example of the insurance industry's volatile job market, as are the recent departures of David Hope from Markel International, John Charman from Ace Global and Bob Scott from CGNU this month. But it is not just the big names that are moving around, as insurance workers at all levels are changing their jobs more frequently. These vacancies have to be filled from a small pool of available candidates with the skills required for the job. Meanwhile, it is getting harder to poach the workers with the expertise, as their own companies realise their value and reward them generously. So how are insurers finding the right men and women for the jobs?

IPS Group has been recruiting for insurers since 1970 and director Christopher Dickman says that insurers have been turning more to specialist recruitment agencies to fill vacancies.

"We have very strong relationships with a number of organisations, who use us more regularly than ever before," he says. "We've seen a change in emphasis, moving towards a greater amount of value put on recruitment. Previously they used to retain staff, recruit from school and university and promote from within."

Dickman partly attributes this shift to a job market made more uncertain by mergers and acquisitions. "There's less opportunity for candidates to consider a move, considering the number of firms," he says. Added to this is the decreasing likelihood of attracting qualified candidates through advertising alone. "Advertising is becoming a less effective route in some instances, and I think the reason is that there is a great oversupply of requirement and an undersupply of candidates."

Dickman says this is because training programmes were slowed or stopped during the early 1990s world recession. The parallel trend for having fewer employees doing the same amounts of work has also contributed.

Skills shortage
Andrew Byrne, an insurance recruiter for Hillman Saunders, agrees there is a lack of qualified candidates. "There's definitely a lot of people moving, but there's also definitely a skills shortage, a lack of quality candidates. Fewer people who are really skilled and experienced are looking for a new job," he says.

Although some employers fill their vacancies by traditional means, such as press advertising or word of mouth, and also via their own websites, Byrne says most have relationships with recruitment agencies, which they use to fill at least a portion of their vacancies. "You find invariably that all agencies have a steady bank of clients that come to them on a regular basis," he says.

Agencies then fill these positions using a variety of methods. Byrne says that the more mundane roles can often be covered from the agency's candidate database. If not, agencies will use a combination of print advertisements in both the national and trade press and advertisements on their websites. At present, website and press adverts appear to attract an equal number of responses. However, most agencies report that their websites are receiving more hits than before.

"At first it was just the analytical people, who were more likely to have their own computer, who were answering web adverts," says Byrne. "But now everyone has one."

Mark Farrimond believes so much in the future of web job advertising that he gave up his business development job with Ace Europe to start justinsurancejobs.co.uk last April. His site allows insurance companies and agencies to advertise their jobs for a flat fee, with calls going directly to the advertiser. Advertisers can add their company logo, application forms and other flourishes for an added fee.

Farrimond says he founded the site after noticing that, although there were many financial jobs websites, none specialised in insurance. "It took off quite well and it's building all the time," he says. "It'll be expanding again in a couple of months."

But what happens when the vacant position is too sensitive to be advertised? Job adverts are a barometer of the industry and no company wants to broadcast high-ranking departures or poor performances that make replacement imminent. As Jo Quail of Royce Appointments says: "We watch the advertisements very carefully because they tell us what is going on in the job market, but also let a company's competitors know there's a hole in the department".

Some jobs are just too unusual to be filled through an advert. Specialist fields of insurance open regularly, and companies wishing to get into them need employees with prior experience in these fields. In these situations, companies usually turn to head-hunters.

All agencies say they "proactively" seek candidates and most do both contingency recruitment and head-hunting. Mansion House Executive head-hunts for positions offering salaries over £60,000. Director David Cooper says head-hunters receive a good reception when first approaching a potential candidate. "I think people in the current market are prepared to talk to head-hunters. There's less loyalty to employers, they realise they can't stay with the one company for the duration of their career," he says.

However, it is not money that motivates most of those head-hunted into accepting the job, says Hillman Saunders head-hunter Andy Heyes. He thinks they are more influenced by the credibility and security of the company offering them a new job.

Cooper adds that this means the head-hunter must be a salesperson for their client: "The stumbling blocks are often the company plans and career opportunities, what the market standing of the company is and the question of whether it will be taken over in the next six months. We have to convince candidates that our client will give them better opportunities and career paths, and a long-term plan. The money, although it has to be right, is the last thing discussed."

A cautionary tale
Agencies may be the most effective port of call in filling most vacancies, but the experience of Matthew Ockford, a help desk analyst specialising in insurance, provides a cautionary tale for employers who use agencies without insurance knowledge.

"I went to two information technology agencies that advertised in Computer Weekly. After going through the rigmarole of a long and strange telephone interview, I never heard another peep out of one. This was probably a blessing in disguise as an ex-collegue had half a dozen interviews through this agency, all of which were for jobs that were totally inappropriate, or paying less than he was getting, although this wasn't made clear to him before he went along.

"The other agency bombarded me with possibilities, ignoring the fact that I wanted to continue my IT career as a help desk analyst in the insurance market. In the end they took this on board and, from what I can gather, sent my details to every organisation even vaguely connected with insurance. The problem was that I was working for an underwriting agency that was on the point of merging with a larger one. Of course, they sent my details to the agency we were going to merge with and, although I didn't lose my job, it was obvious that promotion wasn't exactly beckoning!

"After that, I told the agency I didn't want any more to do with them, and went to see some agencies that specialise in insurance and do some IT recruitment as well. The difference in service standards was staggering, they even returned my phone calls! They also gave me job descriptions before interviews and knew about their clients. I got a job two months ago through a specialist agency and, although it's early days, I love it."