Paul Picknett says companies need to be doing more to promote the insurance sector in order to secure a future workforce before other industries scoop them up

f you really want to kill a party’s atmosphere, crack a Bernard Manning joke. Or tell people you work for an insurance company. Either way, there’ll soon be plenty of floor-space in your vicinity should you feel the need to strut your funky stuff.

But why should that be the case? Why do so many people think of insurance as the by-word for boring? And why do so many think the insurance industry thrives on swollen premiums and a reflex reluctance to pay claims? For that matter, why is it all-but socially acceptable to defraud an insurance company? What are we, mugs or monsters?

Some within the industry believe that there’s little point in playing up the value of insurance in the wider world. It’s almost as if we’re the Millwall FC of commerce: “Everyone hates us but we don’t care!” But we really should care. We’re in danger of having more image problems than the Spice Girls and if we’re not careful it will undermine our future prospects.

Take the issue of recruitment. It’s probably true to say that currently we find it tough to attract our fair share of talented recruits. So what, you might say. It’s not stopped the insurance sector employing 350,000 people within a diverse range of successful businesses, from high street brokers to multinational entities.

OK, so most of us got into the business by accident or because insurance was the only show in town where we grew up. But so what? Why beat ourselves up over our lack of public acclaim?

The answer is that there will always be a need to replenish the talent pool. Because wherever you might sit in the business the battle for talent is intensifying, and at the moment we’re not so much X Factor as ZZzzzz factor.

Forget all the latest, whizz-bang technology. People are still a business’s prime asset. The better your staff, the better your company. So if all the best prospects are joining investment banks, solicitors, accountants and other commercial enterprises, it won’t be long before the insurance market takes the hit. Because all of these disciplines are fishing in the same pond. So we have to find a way to compete.

So what can be done? First, we need to stop being shy about what we do and actively promote the positive aspects of insurance. Our industry is essential to modern life. Imagine a world without insurance – it would collapse in days. The June floods brought devastation and despair to thousands of people, but without us the situation would have been even more catastrophic.

It goes to show how badly we are regarded that the media still managed to make ogres of insurers even when we were performing heroics on behalf of policyholders in swamped homes and business premises. There is clearly work to be done.

We can also talk more about the many and varied career opportunities we can offer. Technicians, sales and marketing staff, human resources professionals, accountants, actuaries, lawyers, engineers, linguists, administrators and information technology specialists all have a place.

What can we do in practical terms to attract the best graduates and school-leavers?

We need to reinstate and reinvigorate our graduate training activity. That means raising our profile on university, college and school campuses where we can engage with the next generation of employees. We should also exploit opportunities such as milkround.com and provide information and applications online. And when we attract good people, we should give them structured and stretching learning and development programmes that demonstrate the variety of challenges offered by a career in insurance.

Insurers should do once more what they once did so well – expose their recruits to the wide range of disciplines right across the business. This gives people a sense of the breadth of opportunity and persuades them that insurance is anything but dull. We should make it clear that insurance offers many routes forward for those who are prepared to invest their effort and energy into building their careers.

We should also provide practical support so that people have the time and incentive to complete industry qualifications. We should identify potential high-fliers who can bolster our management capabilities. We should not be afraid to fast-track those with calibre and capability. The process should eventually seed itself, with standards rising as more rising stars are brought into the sector.

We should also not be shy about the fact that the insurance business, by and large, is a great place to work. If we are bullish about what we can offer, and if we tailor our offer to suit the appetites and aspirations of today’s crop of high fliers, then we will fight on equal terms with other employers in the financial sector.

From a personal perspective, I’ve always wanted to be in this business. I can still remember saying to my Dad: “When I grow up, I want to work in insurance.” To which he said: “Well, make your mind up, son, you can’t do both.”

Joking aside, I’ve always found the insurance market challenging, stimulating, rewarding and, yes, a lot of fun. But that’s been down to the calibre of people and the way they respond. All we need now is more of them.