Even accountants can become glamorous, so why are insurers still dogged by poor image? Michael Faulkner reports on ways toattract more graduates

Perversely, the collapse of Enron may have benefited the accountancy profession.

At parties throughout Britain, when accountants are asked what they do for a living they no longer need pretend to be art dealers, firefighters or Formula One drivers. Accountancy now has an edge - a whiff of illicit glamour. Enron has made accountancy seem sexy, or at least sexier.

But even before the recent spate of US corporate scandals, the accountancy profession was succeeding in recruiting some of the brightest and the best graduates.

So why has this profession, which spawned a Monty Python sketch about an accountant who wants to become a lion tamer as his job is so dull, been so good at recruiting? And why has the insurance industry done so badly? Delegates at the Insurance Times Strategy 2002 conference were perplexed.

Deloitte & Touche partner David Rush says the prominence of the professional qualification and the skills and knowledge that the training develops are important factors in the profession's attractiveness.

"The accountancy qualification is held in high regard by the business community. And the training gives a deep insight into the world of business; graduates can go out to many clients, see why they are in business and why they are successful."

Lessons to learn

So could insurance learn from this?

Willis director of group human resources Steve Maycock says one of the problems the insurance industry faces is that, unlike accountancy, its professional qualification is not well known outside the industry.

Rush suggests this because attaining the accountancy qualification is mandatory for those wishing to enter the profession, whereas an insurance qualification is not.

Some insurers and brokers have fast-track schemes with completion of the ACII as essential element. Others specify a CII qualification as a prerequisite to promotion to senior management. But others do not.

Should the industry make more of an effort to make qualifications a minimum entry standard? Although it is too early to say at the moment, the FSA may require this.

Maycock says the key to better promotion of qualifications is better promotion of the industry. After that the value of the qualification can be publicised.

CII marketing director Steve Wellard says that, while the CII actively promotes careers and qualifications through a central careers information service, he would like to see organisations publicising their qualified staff by letting them use their designations and chartered titles on correspondence.

And what about the business skills aspect?

At present the ACII incorporates `business management' subjects within the qualification, and the CII College also runs courses on finance, management and sales skills.

But training and competence consultant Robin Wood argues that the industry would benefit if it offered more business-related skills and training.

"Historically, the business training provided by the industry has been poor. If one could create a more rounded business qualification, it might improve retention."

Groupama corporate services director Paul Picknett agrees: "The accountancy profession has delivered a structured and proper training programme on top of qualifications. They take young people through the different parts of the business. The insurance industry needs to reinstate graduate training activities and increase resources for training."

Picknett also argues that the insurance industry lacks the vision and level of confidence of other professions.

"Other industries have taken steps to reflect needs and aspirations of Generation X. They offer golden helloes and sabbaticals."

Picknett suggests other practical changes: more homeworking, increased annual leave allowances, relocation of offices away from clogged-up urban centres and career breaks.

A further area where the accountants appear to have succeeded and the insurance industry has failed is in the marketing of the respective professions.

The accountancy firms, says Rush, have promoted themselves as business advisers. And the companies at the top end of the profession are seen as dynamic businesses with opportunities for foreign travel, fast progression and a range of career opportunities.

A far cry from the dull, number-crunching image of the accountancy profession, then.

Promote yourself

On the other hand, the insurance industry has done "a less than a stirling job of promoting its opportunities," according to Maycock.

You only need to compare the recruitment websites of the Big Four accountants with those in the insurance industry to see this.

Deloitte & Touche's website (www.deloitte.co.uk) provides information on the range of opportunities, including details of the support, training and career development offered to employees. The site also contains profiles of recent recruits, day-in-the-life articles, and case studies

KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers' websites have similar information.

But look at Aviva (
www.aviva.com ) and Allianz Cornhill's (
www.cornhill.co.uk ) sites and the differences are staggering. The Allianz Cornhill site contains only vague information about career opportunities, while the Aviva site doesn't even provide that level of information - although a large amount of space is devoted to the group's name change. Neither site offers any insight into what life would be like for a new recruit.

Is it surprising that the brightest and the best are not flocking to apply for jobs in the insurance industry?

Maycock says: "There needs to be a fundamental change in how it is conveyed outside the sector. The industry needs to better promote the opportunities it offers to people who do not understand the sector. And it needs to get away from view that the industry is boring - people become more interested when you talk about risk rather than insurance, for instance."

The internet is one vehicle for this, but Maycock also advocates a greater use of work experience for undergraduates and MBA students, a broader distribution of articles in magazines and newspapers, and general willingness of staff to talk about the company.

But there are some positive signs.

Marsh has updated its graduate recruitment programme to include business training and project work, along with potential for overseas secondments and sabbaticals. And the company website (www.marshgraduates.co.uk) is stylish and packed with facts.

Willis has also taken a few leaves from the accountants' books in developing its recruitment and retention strategies.

"We have studied the professional services firms a lot," says Maycock. "We have looked at many of these companies and tried to take some of the good things, such as the way performance is appraised and rewarded, mentoring programmes and the use of career development discussions."

Maycock also says Willis is seeking to update its website to include details of life at the company and offer the opportunity for applicants to contact a senior member.

It is clear the industry has a long way to go. Its image and culture is not going to change overnight, but better recruitment websites would be a good start.