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Industry confronts a head-hunting nightmare

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It's almost Halloween, and a specter is haunting the property/casualty insurance industry. But this specter doesn't respect the calendar — it haunts the industry every day of the year, and it grows more frightening every day.

The specter is that of a shrinking talent pool to fill industry jobs. It's a topic that comes up at every industry gathering. Sometimes it merits a panel session or a prominent speaker; other times it comes up over drinks after a day's formal agenda has ended. But no matter what the setting, the concern is there, and it's real.

And it should be. Face it: There's a finite pool of talent, and the industry hasn't done the job it should in tapping it. With more and more members of the baby boomer generation cashing their first Social Security checks every month, the issue of replacing them becomes ever more critical.

In fairness, the insurance industry labors under some heavy burdens, not all of which it deserves, when it comes to filling its ranks. The industry suffers from a caricature image as hucksteresque enterprise — some are old enough to remember the scene in the Woody Allen movie “Take the Money and Run,” where the hapless Virgil Starkwell is punished by being put in a prison steam box with a life insurance salesman.

And if the industry isn't viewed as a joke, it's viewed as a boring distant cousin of the financial services industry. It's a drab Main Street endeavor competing against a far more glamorous Wall Street.

It was evident during conversations at both the recent MarketScout Entrepreneurial Insurance Symposium and the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers Insurance Leadership Forum that the industry has to overcome these perceptions, and do so quickly. The catch — and of course there's always a catch — is that there's no single approach to solve the industry's demographic problem.

Only a multipronged strategy holds any real hope of meeting the challenge. One prong is encouraging risk management and insurance programs at the collegiate level. Supporting such efforts can mean providing internships or other work-while-learning opportunities.

The talent pool doesn't end with risk management and insurance majors — liberal arts majors and others can learn the insurance business as well. And students at four-year educational institutions aren't the only source of talent, either. “Apprenticeship” programs that recruit from two-year community colleges can pay off as well.

Pulling those in the workforce from noninsurance backgrounds adds new perspectives to the business. In the past 30 years, I've met risk managers who didn't enter the field until years after they'd earned their livings in such diverse fields as engineering and law enforcement.

Skilled people are out there, they just have to be cultivated. Only then can the specter of the ever-shrinking talent pool be consigned to the oblivion it deserves.