The insurance industry has seized on the idea of ongoing in-house training to plug a growing skills gap. But what does the term continuous professional development really mean, asks Amanda Swinburn.

The insurance industry has always been a transient business, and in the 21st century it looks set to be even more so, with a glut of new entrants onto the market, a culture of mergers and acquisitions and a changing demand for products.

Even if the economy is slightly less buoyant, insurers are still finding it difficult to recruit high-calibre employees to meet the needs of the market. And many have seen another way of reducing the skills gap - improving training opportunities from within.

Continuous professional development (CPD) is now a catchphrase for both insurers and insurance trade organisations alike. Taken as a general term, it is a means of recording the professional training given to employees. However, there is a variety of ways in which this training can be given, and different bodies, such as the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), the Institute of Insurance Brokers (IIB) and the General Insurance Standards Council (GISC), each has its own definition.

There is no industry benchmark for CPD, but individual bodies are starting to work together to create standards for individual sectors - from brokers to underwriters to risk managers.

CPD has been included in the rules of the GISC. Rule G3 states that it should include technical knowledge, the application and development of skills and up-to-date knowledge of legislative changes in the market. Members must identify areas for development, possible training activities and dates for completion and reassessment. Each employee should be assessed at least once a year.

CPD may take the form of extra training needed because an employer has moved jobs. For example, a senior third-party claims negotiator may need certain legal knowledge not required by more junior staff.

However, Catherine Nicholl of the GISC points out that CPD should not just apply to insurance professionals, but to anyone working in the sector, including high-street sellers such as travel agents.

For this reason, the GISC prefers the more general term "continuous personal - as opposed to professional - development".

It has published a guide called Competence and Training, which advises employers on how to assist in employees' development. Under the rules, employers must monitor all training given.

Mentoring
However, Nicholl believes that not all training needs to be formal. "I think one of the things our monitors have found is that there are a lot of day-to-day, regular, sensible acts which go on in organisations which management may not think of as training," she says.

"Mentoring, or people being given help by colleagues, is viewed by us as part of a well-run training and competence programme. It does not have to mean sending people on some expensive course."

Under GISC guidelines, CPD can encompass extra qualifications, short courses, research projects, articles and reviews, private study, conferences, seminars and desktop training.

"The emphasis should be on the quality of CPD and not the quantity," says the report. "The onus rests with the member to evaluate and approve possible CPD activities, as appropriate."

Nicholl believes that there should be standard training for certain sectors of the industry, such as medical intermediaries, but not across the industry as a whole, because educational needs differ so widely.

The CII is a also a champion of CPD and offers a range of training courses to help members to keep their skills current.

All courses undertaken are logged and can then be used in the recipient's appraisal to evaluate benefits and career progression.

The CPD it offers is divided into two categories - structured and unstructured. Structured learning includes courses, writing articles, undertaking research and putting together projects. The unstructured side offers self-teaching by reading insurance news articles and reports.

"CPD shows employers that people are keeping their skills up to date. This is what constitutes a professional," says CII spokesman Steve Radford.

Personal control
He adds that most people are keen to take control of their own career paths and like to know that new skills are noted and rewarded.

The CII also works with The British Insurance Brokers' Association (Biba) to ensure that CPD standards are the same for both organisations. All courses taken at Biba are worth six hours' credit at the CII.

David Crumpts, training manager at Biba, says that CPD should meet the needs of the insurance profession and the individual company equally.

"The impetus for CPD comes out of professions, not the trade associations," he says.

The Association of Intermediaries and Insurance Brokers (AIIB), which represents smaller brokers and intermediaries, also recommends the CII's training schemes. And the AIIB itself is putting the finishing touches to several training modules designed to help members comply with the GISC rules.

The Institute of Insurance Brokers (IIB) however, has taken CPD one step further by launching a new CPD website for brokers this month.

Part of the site will be interactive, with internet discussion groups, while technical information will be provided in both personal and commercial lines. The service will be offered free to all brokers registered with the IIB, and members can choose from structured and unstructured learning.

"This is going to be a very sophisticated site," says IIB director general Andrew Paddick. Users will be able to register with the site, and details will be kept of which pages are accessed the most, to update CPD records.

Online courses
Future IIB launches will include an online syllabus for trainee insurance brokers. The first IIB student course will be launched in September.

Students who pass the two modules for commercial and personal lines insurance will receive a new accreditation: institute-certified personal insurance adviser.

Paddick says the course has been created in response to demand from brokers, who want younger employees to meet IIB standards.

The IIB intends the courses to be of a more practical nature than those offered by the CII. "On completion of our courses, our students will be able to sit behind a desk and deal with the public as a broker," he adds.

However, he stresses that the IIB courses are compatible with those of the CII, and those who pass the IIB qualification will be encouraged to further their skills on the CII's courses.

It is clear that the major industry bodies are offering support and guidance to companies and individual employees who wish to take part in CPD. And most of the major insurers, including Royal & Sunalliance, Allianz Cornhill, Groupama and Norwich Union offer excellent training opportunities for staff, either through internal academies or by outsourcing to training specialists.

Now, with the introduction of CPD into the GISC rules, all employers in the insurance industry, from the high street travel agent to the specialist broker, will be required to monitor the career progression of employees.

This offers a culture of lifelong learning to insurance professionals and can only be seen as a positive step in closing the skills gap that exists in the industry.

Cox pulls out all the stops to offer superlative professional training
Cox Insurance is leading the way in insurance training; last year it won the Insurance Industry Awards 2000 "Training Programme of the Year".

Cox's Bradford call centre was also singled out at the national awards held recently by the Call Centre Management Association. Rachel Hutchinson was named runner up for "Team Manager of the Year".

Since first opening, the call centre has grown from 50 to 350 fully trained insurance agents.

"This rate of growth so far and planned future growth would not be possible without clear and effective training programmes for all staff at all levels, from the time they join the company and throughout the progression of their career," says Maria Burke, director of the Bradford office.

All staff have the chance to study for further professional qualifications, including a range of insurance certificates and NVQs.

However, says Burke, ongoing training is also offered informally, via a staff intranet, which offers advice, suggestions and information.

"At Cox, continuous professional development means providing the opportunity and the support for each member of staff to reach their full potential within their workplace and, wherever possible, to progress within the company," says Burke.

Cox is one of the first companies to train its entire staff on the internet, in addition to training all members of the team to sell six different personal lines products, motor, home, motorcycle, travel, pet and car rescue cover. All agents complete a five-week induction programme and have weekly training sessions, which are also followed up by monthly group workshops.

More than 10% of all staff are sitting a professional qualification, a figure which the insurer predicts will grow this year, as staff are encouraged by the examination success of others.