The insurance industry seems to be losing ground in the battle for graduates, but can it learn from the accountancy firms? Anne Hesketh reports

While a lot of graduates aspire to get a dream job with one of the big accountancy firms or a renowned investment bank, the insurance industry is still struggling to get people through its doors.

In an effort to turn the tide, individual companies, Lloyd’s and the CII have all been working on their own schemes to promote the industry as a positive career choice. But are their efforts paying any dividends?

According to Julie Wheatman, recruitment manager at Norwich Union, the short answer is no. In fact, she says: “The number of graduates we have attracted this year, for a September 2008 ‘ ‘ start date, has seen a small decrease. However, the quality of applicants has improved with more candidates passing screening than in previous years.”

Graduates don’t know what the industry can offer them in terms of career path and development. There are few on-campus activities by the industry and, when compared to other sectors such as accountancy, a clear lack of money in promoting insurance as a career.

Andrew Whitmore, assistant director of the careers and employability division at the University of Manchester, says that knowledge of the industry among students is low. “I don’t think the insurance industry has had a high profile at all with graduates in the 18 years I have been working with them – unless someone had a personal connection with the industry.”

Rachel Biuen, strategy analyst at Lloyd’s, who entered the insurance industry after doing a business degree at Cardiff University, is a case in point. “I wasn’t 100% sure of what to do, but I had friends in the industry and they told me about it,” she says. “I think insurance is a unique industry which is appealing to graduates.”

She admits, however that, if it weren’t for her friends, she would never have thought about a career in the industry.

While accountancy firms have been on campus for many years, sponsoring all sorts of activities and giving presentations to students, Whitmore says that graduates’ experience of insurance is limited.

“Some accountancy firms have a seven-figure budget for student recruitment

Paul Travis, City & Law

“Some may have worked in insurance call centres, so they do not regard it as a graduate career. And, if people don’t know ‘ ‘ about the opportunities, they won’t apply.”

One of the biggest challenges in terms of perception, according to Paul Travis, director of City & Law, the company helping the CII to promote insurance as a career option among graduates, is that many students don’t have a view of the insurance industry at all.

He says: “It is not that they have a negative perception of the industry, they have no perception at all and that’s the problem.”

Travis adds that, although the CII is pushing things forward, to put the industry in a position to compete with other financial services sectors, such accountancy and investment, on-campus presence is vital, not only for the CII but also for individual companies.

“If you look at Manchester, one of the most targeted universities in the UK, there were about 30 accountancy firms’ presentations last year, while the insurance industry had just one, a CII event,” he says.

To compete at the same level the industry will have to invest time, effort and especially money. “Some accountancy firms have a seven-figure budget for student recruitment,” says Travis.

Five-year strategy

But he believes the industry is heading in the right direction. “We need to remember that this [the CII talent initiative] has always been a five-year strategy. You are not going to change the perception in two years.”

“I do not think the insurance industry has had a high profile at all with graduates in the 18 years I have been working with them

Andrew Whitmore,University of Manchester

Wheatman agrees. “The CII initiative is a start. But we need to do more if we want to raise the profile of the insurance sector as an attractive alternative to banking, investment, accountancy or law. There is sufficient scope within the insurance sector to provide individuals with opportunities to grow, develop and create either a very specific career or alternatively to experience the variety it has to offer.”

Another hurdle is that many graduates already know where they are going to work even before they finish their course. This is because many companies have internship programmes and run summer placements. So, Travis points out, the insurance industry is missing a trick by not offering more internship opportunities.

“Many companies have programmes which allow students to gain experience very early in their academic careers, so they are basically hiring the top guys earlier on,” he says.

But things are slowly changing, according to James Gregory, managing director of insurance recruitment specialist Darwin Rhodes. He says that he has seen an increase in the number of graduates wanting to pursue a career in insurance, adding that, nowadays, graduate programmes run by large insurance companies such as Marsh and Allianz are “highly regarded”.

“The industry is doing something about it. Is it working? Yes, but the question is whether it is working enough. We need to maintain a high level of activity to attract people in what is a very competitive space.”

For that to happen, those in the insurance industry will have to dig deeper in their pockets and step up their efforts.

The CII says it still has a “little bit of money left”, but it also makes clear that it cannot take all the responsibility. “We do need continuing support from the industry to change perception,” emphasises a CII spokesperson.

And perhaps a little creativity won’t also go amiss. As Sean McGovern, director and Lloyd’s general counsel, says: “The industry needs to be more creative in how it gets its message across.”

Why is accountancy a hot career choice?

While the insurance sector struggles to get graduates through its doors, accountancy continues to be seen as a hot career choice.
Deloitte alone receives an average of over 1,000 applications from graduates wanting to join the firm every year.
Caroline Britton, partner in the financial services practice at Deloitte, puts this popularity down not only to the efforts of individual firms to promote themselves as an employer of choice, but also to the fact that accountancy bodies have worked hard to raise the profile of the industry’s qualifications.
“The ACA is a premium business qualification and is seen as a very good step, regardless of what you want to do with your career,” she says.
Individual firms are also doing their fair share to bring new blood to the industry. According to Britton, firms ran over 1,000 events across 35 universities over the past two years.
At these events, firms can sell the rewards and benefits that come with a career in accountancy.
“Graduates are ambitious and want to progress quickly,” she says. “While we may have 1,000 graduates, there are 1,000 different career paths they can choose from – they can specialise in different aspects of the industry.
“Often they also get international experience by being seconded around the world. We also offer flexible working, so that they can combine a career with a family, or any other interest. It hasn’t got to be an all-or-nothing option anymore.”
Giving students a clear picture of how far they can go and what options they have is key. According to Helen Pennington, senior account manager at Omni RMS, a recruitment outsourcing company, it is not all about money.
She says that today’s graduates are also interested in training and development, which is something accountancy firms have consistently delivered. “The ‘big four’ have successfully established powerful employer brands on the back of this, emphasising the career development opportunities they offer, from qualification support and CPD to international secondments and rapid promotion.”
So what can the insurance industry learn from the accountants?
Britton explains: “What accountancy firms have learned over the past five years is that they can’t assume graduates will know about what they offer if they are not told.
“What we say is that it is an interesting, fulfilling and rewarding option, which gives them the opportunity to tailor their career to suit them. The insurance industry ought to think what it can offer graduates and how that matches up with graduates’ aspirations.”