Insurers are on the hunt for staff with very specific IT skills. Amanda Swinburn investigates which particular capabilities and experience will get you noticed….

The days of paper mountains are over for the insurance market, as pen and ink is replaced with new technology to make the marketplace more efficient. Across the financial services industry, employers are finally embracing the information technology revolution. Increasingly large sums are being invested in labour-saving IT, from claims-handling systems to new websites.

But with the new systems come fresh headaches for human resources departments. Employers want recruits with IT experience, but there is a yawning gap when it comes to recruiting highly skilled IT professionals.

New recruits to the insurance market will find themselves at a disadvantage if they are not computer literate. So which are the key skills they need to get ahead?

The changing market
Employers in the insurance industry are becoming much more IT-aware, says Royston Betts of London-based recruitment consultants Lime Street. “Whereas a few years ago, employers would ask for people with Access, Excel and Word skills, now they are getting much more specific,” he says.

Insurers are increasingly demanding staff with intermediate to advanced skills, particularly in the London market, which requires that new employees can use Class (its Claims, Loss and Settlement System).

With more insurance companies launching websites, he also sees an increased need for insurers, particularly those in personal lines, to have the relevant skills.

“There is also a growing demand for good helpdesk people and personnel to provide website solutions,” he says.

Many new recruits have done IT courses at school or college. However, Betts advises those who haven't to ask their employer to send them on a Microsoft course.

Recruitment consultants can also help, by suggesting courses or even providing some training themselves.

Andrew Heyes of insurance recruiters Hillman Saunders is less concerned about an IT skills gap in insurance, saying that most young recruits are very computer-savvy, and the most people in the industry use PCs.

Candidates who have had no exposure to IT at all are increasingly rare, he says.

Internal training
While insurers like new recruits to have some IT skills, many will train staff internally to use their individual computer systems.

Call centre staff just need to have basic keyboard skills and will be trained on the job.

A Churchill Insurance spokeswoman says: “It's essential for people in certain roles, such as statistics and technical support, to have IT skills. But at lower levels, we can send people on courses to advance their experience.”

The advent of online training, designed to cut costs and save time, has given rise to an even greater need for computer skills.

Royal & Sunalliance (RSA) has upgraded the skills of many staff to use the company intranet. All staff bulletins and much of the company's training facilities, from online books, to discussion rooms and testing, are delivered this way.

Graduates who wish to apply for jobs at RSA must complete an online application form. “It is clear to those who apply that we are a company which requires people to be computer literate,” says RSA's technical training and development manager Fiona Andrews.

She agrees that the standard of young people's IT skills is very high but adds: “RSA can back these up by teaching people a range of packages, fairly robustly and quickly.”

Those applying for underwriting and claims positions are expected to have a higher level of technical skills.

The war for talent
When it comes to technical support, Heyes believes that insurers need to do more to attract IT professionals by paying more. “Insurance has never been known as a well-paid profession, so IT people are going elsewhere,” he says. “It is difficult to compete with other sectors, such as the banking world.”

Churchill is dealing with the skills shortage by promoting from within, sending people on training courses for Oracle and UNIX, to enable them to fill technical roles.

Outside agencies can also help. Companies such as Performance Coaching International are often called in to train employees.

Keeping ahead
Betts advises all insurance professionals to make sure they update skills frequently. “This is now as important as doing professional exams,” he says. “At senior levels, insurers frequently demand advanced IT skills.

“Many older people are having to undertake training courses to update their skills.”

However, doing this can dramatically improve job prospects. “IT skills won't make a vast difference in pay but will help to get you the job interview in the first place,” he says.

Andrews agrees: “Skilling is a continuous process and it is important to keep abreast of new technology but those with the basic skills can generally update them easily.”

Those entering the insurance industry need to show evidence of keyboard, word processing and PC skills, although big companies provide back-up in the form of internal training.

Key to moving up the insurance ladder is building on these skills to keep up to date with changes in technology.

As far as addressing the real problem of labour shortages at higher IT skills levels, the message from recruiters is clear – insurers need to increase the incentives for experienced IT professionals to join the market, through higher wages and greater benefits.