Modern apprenticeship schemes are finding favour with some brokers but not their professional bodies. Christopher McKevitt explains why

When the Modern Apprenticeship (MA) scheme was launched in 1994, the selling point was that businesses could take on young people who had made informed decisions about their future careers and get the trained employees they needed for the future.

Yet last year the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) while recognising the benefit of the scheme withdrew from the programme citing low-take up as the reason.

The scheme is run by the Financial Services National Training Organisation (FSNTO), which admits that encouraging anyone to look at an insurance apprenticeship is difficult.

"It is a perception that quite a lot of young people have about the industry," says Victoria Robinson of FSNTO's marketing and communications department. "However, companies and bodies such as ours try to extol the fun side of working in the business, especially while qualifying."

It also helps that many modern apprentices in insurance are already working for firms. Meanwhile, firms can tailor the MA to suit their own needs. The advanced modern apprenticeship in insurance, as it is known in England and Wales, is tailored for the industry although it is rooted in the more broad-based financial services MA.

Robinson says: "MAs are becoming more widely known and there is definitely industry support as it was involved on the working parties for the MAs and NVQs."

It is difficult to find precise figures for the numbers training for modern apprentice in England and Wales, but there are 79 people studying in Scotland for the equivalent qualification, the insurance intermediary MA.

Training grants are also available for companies wishing to take part and apprentices gain nationally recognised qualifications based on vocational skills at NVQ levels 2 and 3, together with key skills.

There have been some MA success stories in the industry however.

Low turnover
Scotland's largest independent broker, Giles Insurance, which has a staff of 220, has 23 MA candidates. Another 16 are undertaking Level 2 NVQs and will progress to the MA scheme. (All 11 people who have completed the insurance intermediary MA in Scotland are Giles employees.)

With two-and-a-half years the average time taken to complete the modern apprenticeship, and with considerable input from employers, what are the benefits to firms such as Giles?

Training and development manager Janet Hutchison says: "We gain trained and qualified staff who have a nationally recognised qualification and we also have a low turnover. Staff training, development and learning are survival issues for companies these days, and part of our human resources strategy is to have qualified and skilled staff, so we achieve a corporate objective."

Hutchison adds that the importance of ongoing development is impressed upon prospective employees. "There are lots of opportunities for those who want to commit and we can give examples of people who have committed themselves to qualifications and training who are now at director or manager level."

Giles' management believes the insurance intermediary MA is only the start of a lifelong learning process within the company, while three of the 11 staff that have completed their MA at Giles hold management positions.

However, Giles' positive experience of the MA programme has not been reflected in a wider appreciation of the FSNTO format. According to David Crump, training and development manager at the British Insurance Brokers' Association (Biba), many brokers found the scheme too long, with too many exams, while there appeared to be a dearth of insurance-trained assessors.

Biba was always a keen supporter of the MA training scheme until last year's withdrawal of the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) from the programme. That prompted Biba to review the scheme with its membership. The results showed a preference for basing the training more closely around NVQ 2 and NVQ3 and linking these to CII exams.

"We have been concerned about the core skills [element of the MA scheme] and the need for them to be examinable," says Crump. "Brokers say they are very unpopular with their staff."

He says Biba's education strategy is very much dictated by its members' wishes and requirements, although he also points out that the MA is a very useful asset to have on any insurance curriculum vitae.

Towry Law's Martin Wright, however, believes the MA training is too inflexible. So the firm has devised its own internal training programme, whereby, Wright claims, new staff interact with clients from an early stage in their career.

Achievement objectives
Wright argues that apprenticeships and formal training are essential for the health of the industry. But the MA scheme will not suit everyone. Towry Law's scheme is built on lifelong learning, GISC requirements, an appraisal system and a personal development plan with key achievement objectives.

The firm takes an average of four apprentices each year and spends between £5,000 and £6,000 a year on each in training, study leave and exam fees. So far, it has found its own scheme a success. (One of its trainees, Martin Darbyshire, was runner-up in "Young Achiever" category of the Insurance Times awards last year.)

Wright says the industry has a problem communicating the benefits of a career in insurance to prospective employees, possibly because of a general consumer idea that insurance is all about call centres.

At Giles, Janet Hutchison has a simple message for prospective employees: "Insurance makes the world go round and, as an industry, will not go into decline due to regulatory aspects."

How a modern apprenticeship worked for Giles Insurance
After six years following a determined career path with Giles Insurance in Scotland, which included a modern apprenticeship programme, Susan Dalrymple says she could never imagine working anywhere else.

"I was at university and I just didn't like it. I was doing economics, and I agreed with my parents to take a year out and I'm still here. Thankfully, I have no regrets."

But to forge her career within Scotland's biggest independent broker, Dalrymple has been hard at work at the books.

Now personal lines renewal manager, last April she became the seventh Giles employee to complete the insurance intermediary modern apprenticeship. As for career paths within insurance broking, she describes the MA programme as "probably the major stepping stone".

"It gives you confidence," she adds. "You have something to certify that you can actually do the job." While some of the elements in the apprenticeship, such as IT, were reasonably manageable, the MA is not an academic walk-over.

"You have really got to apply yourself to it and work hard at it, but there is the support there [from her employer]," she says.

Having finished her MA and now continuing with her management studies, Dalrymple feels that the career path at Giles is very much open to her.