Working with their recruitment partners insurance firms could overcome the staff and skill shortages that are hurting the industry. Matt Heskett reports

The insurance industry suffers a crisis of image when it comes to attracting and retaining staff. Although perceptions on image are not necessarily reflected from within, the stark truth is that the majority of today's graduates head for careers in City banking and stockbroking, while insurance is perceived as less dynamic and exciting.

As well as attracting new talent to the sector, there remains the issue of experienced professionals within the commercial sector not progressing as rapidly. They tend to remain static, preferring the relative security of their current post rather than aiming for higher and more demanding roles.

Past experience of mergers and acquisitions where employees have had to reapply for their own jobs has given rise to a pattern of experienced professionals preferring to stay put. Thus the vacancies arising in the more senior positions are proving difficult to fill.

The sector is only slowly waking up to the fact that finding good quality staff in the current climate involves greater promotion of what the sector has to offer, as well as implementing some innovative recruitment strategies. But more needs to be done to address skills shortages for both underwriters and brokers.

The recruitment industry has done a great deal to support the need for top quality candidates in the City since the re-emergence of the Lloyd's market in 2003. Operators have recognised that professional recruitment firms with specialist consultants who are thoroughly experienced in the intricacies of the insurance industry, have a great deal to offer.

These firms provide a very different service to the high street recruiters that many regional brokers use to source administrative stand-in staff.

The calls for increased investment and training by employers for their staff must be listened to by all employers across the sector if staffing shortages are to be addressed.

Investment in staff underlines to insurance professionals that they are highly valued, by the amount of time and money spent on training and career development.

As well as an excellent retention strategy for experienced professionals, it is also a powerful selling point to those looking to enter the sector for the first time, highlighting a firm as a would-be employer that truly invests in its workforce.

Once the above has been addressed, it is important to look at tactics and planning. In general across the industry, upcoming vacancies need to be identified a lot sooner than at present and the recruitment process needs to begin when receipt of notice is given or an upcoming retirement is imminent.

At this point, depending on the seniority of the position, a decision needs to be made as to whether an executive search approach will be called into play - for example transferring those looking to move out of London to senior positions in the regions, or whether the right candidates will already be on an agency's books.

Much time can also be saved if top recruitment agencies can reach deeply into the available candidate pool right across the UK and optimise the benefits of online and paper-based recruitment techniques.

Use of screening centres and advanced psychometric testing techniques can also identify those candidates from closely aligned sectors who have the ability to transfer into insurance, but would otherwise not be considered.

Recruiters can also take much of the strain out of the procurement process by hosting multiple interview sessions around the country and conducting preliminary screening interviews themselves. This can also help drive the decision-making process.

One of the final areas where external consultancy can pay dividends is strategic advice on achieving the right staffing mix. Recruiters can use the benefit of experience and modelling to advise on the number and type of staff to be brought in, how the assimilation of these employees affect staff requirements, and, if a company restructures, who will be retained or who will go.

So, although not a 'catch-all' solution, if brokers and underwriters form a closer working relationship with professional recruiters and use recruitment tools and techniques to better effect, at least some of the current staffing pressures being experienced by the sector can be alleviated.

Insurance is a dynamic and rewarding sector to work in, and both employers and recruiters have a duty to promote this message. Good quality recruitment advertising can make a difference here also, but the issue also needs to be addressed from within. IT

' Matt Hesketh is divisional manager at specialist agency Austin Benn