Rising fees and cuts in courses are dashing young people’s dreams of university. For insurance companies, however, it is an opportunity to grab real talent

The insurance industry tends to be poor at advertising or promoting itself. People think about a career in banking or accountancy – but insurance does not tend to cross their minds.

Operations director at Southport-based brokerage David Roberts & Partners, Stuart Bennett, recalls the time last year when he went along to a local college’s careers fair.

“Apart from us, there were maybe three accountancy firms, two solicitors and no brokers or insurance companies at all,” he says. “Everybody moans about it being a problem that not enough people are coming into insurance, but then people are not prepared to go out and represent the industry and work with schools, colleges and local universities.”

Bennett certainly has a point about many being worried about the industry’s ageing workforce, image and profile, and the challenges of attracting and retaining the brokers of the future in a deeply competitive jobs market. Speak to brokers on the ground and there is clearly still a long way to go.

Casting the net

Image issues apart, the economic climate is creating its own challenges for brokers when it comes to recruitment. First, times are still tough and there is simply not much appetite either for hiring or moving around, concedes Institute of Insurance Brokers chief executive Barbara Bradshaw. “There is not a lot of new recruitment going on,” she points out.

Second, where vacancies do come up, the job market is still so competitive that brokerages face being inundated with irrelevant or desperate applications. This can be a serious challenge for a small firm with little, if any, HR support or infrastructure.

Bloomhill Insurance managing director Matt Stringer, of Basingstoke, Hampshire, says: “Often, finding the right calibre of person will mean having to sift through thousands of CVs. We recently advertised a position – just a basic administration, junior broker role – and had applications from a huge spectrum, everything from dustbinmen to graduates.”

Such a response means that it might make sense to bring in a professional recruitment consultancy, although there is a cost. However, the upside, argues Ashbourne Insurance Services managing director Peter Smits, can be considerable.

The firm, based in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, employs 26 people, and originally tried to hire school leavers and train them itself. Five years ago, it switched to using a recruitment consultancy. Smits says: “We give them a brief and they go and do the spade work.

You’re not having to worry about putting in an advert, talking to agencies or sifting through a mountain of CVs. We simply instruct them as to what we want. It has made the process much more streamlined.”

Once candidates have been selected, screening and interviewing has to be addressed. In many parts of the financial services sector, this process is formalised, with candidates often being put through numeric and verbal reasoning tests, psychometric testing and competency interviews. Such methods are catching on in some brokerages, but they are still relatively low key.

Smits says: “We are a family-run company so the interview process does tend to be fairly informal. We try to take the sort of approach we would normally adopt with our customers, but we do include a 20-question analytical Q&A.”

Bennett agrees: “There is an element of practical testing. For example, before people come to an interview we ask them to put together an Excel spreadsheet.

“You tend to find a lot of people say they are good with technology so doing this can show whether they actually are. It also makes candidates realise this is not just about having a conversation, but something quite serious.”

Great opportunities

Most brokers will have seen this summer’s headlines about the thousands of sixth-formers who achieved great A-level or Highers results but failed to get into cash-strapped universities or colleges.

Other youngsters were put off moving into higher education by rising university fees, increasing student debt and cuts in university courses.

What brokers might not have appreciated is how this represents an opportunity for them to grab good people.

The IIB’s Bradshaw says: “This year, particularly with a lot of students being unable to get places at university, it may be that they choose to go and work in a brokerage if there is a vacancy. It may be that, if they do well and enjoy it, they will choose to stay. There may well be an opportunity here for the industry.”

Ravenhall Risk Solutions director Neil Grimshaw, based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, says: “It is not expensive to train someone – it is time-consuming but not generally expensive.

“For example, we had someone start with us in the summer who had just done A-levels and did not want to go to university. They are now doing an NVQ and will be progressing to their CII.

“There is an opportunity for us to get more young people to come into the industry. One of the attractions of our business is that, unlike many, there are no barriers to entry for young people.

“You do not need a specific qualification or degree to come into it and get a job – and you do not have to break the bank, either.” IT