Insurance is facing a skills crisis. Can a Dad's Army of insurance professionals bridge the gap or is ageism rife. Lindsey McDonald investigates

A Dad's Army of older, more experienced insurance employees is descending on the insurance industry. The mission: to end the current war for talent.

Those on the redundancy scrap-heap who once found that their age counted against them in their pursuit of a new job are now finding a different market.

Last year, director general of the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) Sandy Scott said the insurance sector is characterised by a skills gap between the less experienced workforce and the senior, very experienced employees.

For too long the insurance industry had relied on a core of young talent to plug this skills gap.

Recruitment consultant Richard Griffiths of Hays Inter-Selection says, however, the industry has changed recently and is looking beyond the age of a candidate to their talent.

He says: "It is not so much a problem in the executive search side, as we are looking for senior level people.

"It is more of a issue for people in the lower level technical jobs. Almost everyone says they are looking for 25 to 30-year-olds. But more often they just say that and they are not thinking it through.

"Back in 1994 the problem was much worse and people would actually put a preferred age range in their job advertisements, so things have got much better."

One of the companies leading the way in this is Norwich Union, which has mobilised a force of older recruits to work in its call centres.

A spokesperson said: "We found that people in their 40s and 50s tend to have life experience that translates into good people skills. We also discovered that our customers liked to have a mix of people with a diverse age range handling the phones. It is a better balance and moves away from that perception that call centres are all staffed by young people."

In January this year, Age Concern and the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA) launched a campaign, The Business Case for Age Diversity, to raise recognition of the issue ahead of mandatory legislation.

The joint campaign is intended to raise awareness of the issues and implications of ageism for both business and consumer. In particular, it wants to highlight the advantages that employing older individuals with greater skills knowledge can bring.

The EFA, whose members include insurance groups CGNU, Bupa and Legal & General, represents the employers of 14% of the UK's workforce. Its formation in 1996 was, in part, recognition that ageism rather than sexism or racism is the biggest threat to the development of British business.

Legal & General head of remuneration, Geoff Tucker, believes his company is age blind. "This is because we should be recruiting the best person or we should be developing the best person or promoting the best person. If we stopped ourselves from looking at a significant proportion of the workforce on age grounds, we would be doing Legal & General a disservice."

Legal & General is working with Amicus, the insurance sector union, on various age-diverse policies, such as phased retirement.

Currently, 10% of the L&G workforce is over 50. Most are between 21 and 30.

Bupa community affairs manager, Monica Owens, says: "If you have a specific set retirement date because of your pension scheme rules, or the Inland Revenue rules are such that you can't offer flexibility, you are often watching fantastically qualified, well-experienced, people walk out the door, and there is not a thing you can do get them to stay, even when they have wanted to."

Owens, whose brief includes ensuring diversity in all areas across the group, explains that Bupa, with the EFA, is playing a key role in lobbying the government to get pension rules changed to allow for more flexibility on retirement age.

There are other, less financially obvious business reasons for ensuring age diversity in a workforce. Mercer says if consumers are age diverse, it is logical also to have an age-diverse workforce. The group's research has found that many members of the public prefer to deal with more mature staff when problems arise.

Bupa has run over-50 recruitment drives in some of its divisions. "Particularly in our business - the provision of health insurance and care - you could argue that the value of older people is their age and experience," says Owens.

"When people have difficult situations to discuss on the phone, they are bringing something there that is almost intangible, but it adds value to our business."

Another insurer reaping the benefits of employing older individuals is Allianz Cornhill. Although it does not actively target the over-50s in recruitment campaigns, older applicants are not discriminated against during the selection process. As the result of a recent recruitment drive within the IT department, one of the five people appointed was over 50.

Allianz Cornhill personal lines IT manager, David Martin, says: "I purposely wanted people with the right attitude, and age was not a factor in the decision. We look for staff that can do the job.

"Another new employee is five years away from retirement. The fact that he will be retiring still means that we can get four or five years' productivity from him."

Older recruits are often more experienced and highly skilled and so command higher salaries, although the EFA believes it is shortsighted to discount more mature recruits on remuneration grounds, as their experience will lead to savings in training costs for the insurers who hire them.

Legal & General's Tucker agrees, saying: "If a person has the skills and experience to do a particular job you should be paying them for that whether they are 25 or 55."

Another benefit to a business's bottom line to consider is that the evidence suggests older employees have tended to be more loyal. And recent EFA research found an average of £6 to £7m was saved by its members who had implemented an age-diverse policy. N

How a 50-year-old secured a job in insurance
Frank Halpin joined Allianz Cornhill's personal lines IT department in Guildford six months ago after his previous post at CGNU was made redundant. He recounts his varied career in IT and his success at finding a job again, at 50.

"I started in computers in 1978 and I've had various IT jobs. I worked for a small insurance firm for a number of years and left only because I wanted to broaden my experience.

I worked for a software house and then spent six years doing application development.

After that I worked for Terra Nova Reinsurance, as part of a team developing a reinsurance system. From there I took a range of other jobs to update my experience, as the computers I was experienced on were no longer being made.

Then I joined Commercial Union (as it was) in 1990. I was there until last June when it closed the site at Whitely.

When I started looking for another job I was a bit apprehensive that my age might act against me, but I was given a lot of help by a specialist redundancy consultancy firm. It took me only two months to get job.

I haven't found age a real barrier; the team here has people who are 37, 40 and 29, a broad age range. I think fitting in has more to do with what experience you bring to the job.

The job I do at Allianz Cornhill - support with some development on EDI messaging for motor insurance - is not something I had done. In my previous job I worked on designing specialist databases and mainframe applications for client servers.

Allianz Cornhill is flexible and more willing to let people move around and pursue their interests. I think older people are more likely to stay with employers if they are flexible. Employers will benefit from our greater experience.