Insurance has lagged behind other industries in attracting the brightest graduates. But things are changing, as Angelique Ruzicka discovers

The photographs might make you giggle. Pavlos Spyropoulos, a graduate working in the International Market Access division of Lloyd’s, is pictured in a series of “officey” poses – holding a cup of coffee and flicking through a report.

But when asked about the shots, he deflects any suggestion that they show his real responsibilities. “I’m definitely not making any coffee,” says the 25-year-old. “They have given us a lot of work. It’s been a steep learning curve and they are making really good use of us.”

A typical day for Spyropoulos involves helping colleagues lobby governments with the goal of obtaining international licences so Lloyd’s can expand its reach.

Spyropoulos is not the only graduate trainee to be granted such responsibility. In an attempt to attract new blood, many insurance businesses have replaced filing, running errands and other administrative tasks with the lure of frontline action.

Lloyd’s launched its graduate programme in October 2007 following concerns about the lack of young talent in the industry.

Richard Ward, Lloyd’s chief executive, said at the time that nearly 90% of graduates would not consider a role in insurance and that 75% of recruiters struggled to attract quality talent to the sector.

“It is only recently that we have woken up to this problem,” he said. “Until a year ago, more than 70% of industry practitioners did not give information to careers staff, 80% did not give university campus presentations and only a quarter of managing agents had graduate programmes.”

Ward said the insurance industry had itself to blame for not generating enough awareness among students and not investing in graduate schemes as investment banks have done. Banks, he said, spent just under £4,000 on each recruit in 2007. Insurance companies spent £714.

The banks had also cornered the market in glitz and glamour. But now, with their reputations hit hard by the credit crunch, insurance has the upper hand.

Peter Goerke, global head of human resources at Zurich Financial Services, says: “It’s a great opportunity. A slowdown in the banking world in recruitment has benefited insurance as we get more talent. The insurance industry is not dissimilar to banking – it’s all about the talent you hire.”

At Zurich, graduates are hired straight into a business unit or function before starting a 44-week induction programme. They then return to their allocated unit before they are put on three rotations, the last of which is international.

Goerke says the rotations give new entrants the chance to understand the business. “They could, for example, start in underwriting and then go on to claims, finance and risk management.

“We wanted to make sure that it’s not just a local programme so our third rotation is a global one. Someone starting in the US may be sent to China,” says Goerke.

Victoria Payne, graduate recruitment and development executive at Lloyd’s, says the industry can improve its fusty image by outlining the many different jobs available.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done, not just by Lloyd’s but in the rest of the market, to change that perception. One of the best ways to do it is that we offer a holistic view of the industry so people see it [insurance] as a viable career option.”

Goerke says things are already getting better. “When I graduated in the 1980s, insurance was not top of the list. But there is now a significant shift as insurance is moving away from being a heavily regulated industry to one that goes through a lot of change. Young people are interested in those types of industry as they can contribute,” he says.

But Payne believes few graduates are well informed about the industry. “I think some students have no idea about insurance. When they think of it, they think of car or household insurance.”

Skills, not specific degrees

Graduates used to be hired if they had degrees related to the industry, such as economics or mathematics. But increasingly, this is no longer a prerequisite.

“We don’t have a Lloyd’s type,” says Payne. “We don’t look at the subjects students have studied but at their core skills. We’ve got people who have done languages, classics, geography, economics.”

One of the first things Lloyd’s does is try to establish whether graduates know about the industry. Payne says: “On a basic level we look for numeric ability, commercial awareness, understanding of how the insurance market works. They also need to have researched a bit about us and should be able to talk about something topical such as the credit crunch and how that filters down into Lloyd’s. Decision-making and problem-solving skills are also quite important.”

Zurich uses a similar approach. Graduates are invited to apply online, but this is followed by a numerical test, interviews and the presentation of a business case.

Spyropoulos, who has a masters in international relations and English from St Andrews University, found his job by researching the industry.

“I was trying to decide what career I wanted. I went to the Lloyd’s website to find out more about other managing agents and brokers and stumbled on their graduate scheme. It looked really attractive and well organised – and so seemed more appealing than others,” he says.

The diversity of the training was attractive to him. “You can get combined experience here; I was quite worried about working for a broker and then being stuck in one department and not moving around.”

The new apprentices

Applications for the Lloyd's graduate programme have almost doubled from 1,700 in 2008 to 3,000 this year.
This is partly down to the government’s Apprenticeships Bill, introduced to revive apprenticeships across all industries after they began to dwindle in the 1980s.
Apprenticeships, an organisation that advises graduates and employers on how to apply for and run schemes, says the UK now has nearly 200,000 apprentices.
The government wants to increase this and says all school-leavers who want to learn in a work-based environment should be entitled to an apprenticeship by 2013.
This increased focus on apprenticeships and graduate recruitment programmes can only be beneficial to the insurance industry.
"Insurance is a career for life and we need people to challenge how the industry operates. To do that, we need really bright graduates," says Victoria Payne, graduate recruitment and development executive at Lloyd's.