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Aging insurance industry seeks to replenish its ranks with young recruits

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DALLAS — The insurance industry has jobs to offer because up to one-quarter of the current workforce could retire in the next several years, as well as opportunities that range from working from home to learning about the jungle.

That's particularly true for recent college graduates looking for their first jobs, said Debra Richardson, a lecturer and faculty adviser at the University of North Texas in Denton, where she teaches risk management.

“My students all have four and five job offers,” Ms. Richardson said of graduates of the university's risk management program.

“Our industry is hiring. There are jobs in insurance,” said Barbara Bufkin, Dallas-based chief operating officer of the global strategic advisory group at Guy Carpenter & Co. L.L.C.

Putting a more positive face on the industry with a genuine need to replenish the ranks is helping to draw more prospective employees, she said, noting that roughly one-quarter of the insurance industry workforce will be older than 55 in 2018.

“A young person sees the social value in our industry. We're doing a better job talking about it, and also the critical juncture we're at; literally one in four of us potentially retiring by 2018,” Ms. Bufkin said during last week's Entrepreneurial Insurance Symposium put on by electronic insurance exchange MarketScout.

The industry's need to recruit talent and make their operations more attractive was a frequent theme during the Dallas conference.

Ms. Bufkin said the insurance industry would benefit by drawing talent from the widest possible swath of the labor pool to address what she called “the looming talent gap in the insurance industry.”

Management is largely male and would benefit from greater gender diversity, she said.

Others are cultivating talent in different ways.

Swiss Re Ltd. is using flexibility to court employees, allowing them to work from multiple locations or home with workday hours that suit their individual needs, said Eric Smith, New York-based CEO of Swiss Re Americas. Imposing conformity can sap productivity and cause employees to wither, he said.

Maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit and outlook, even within a large corporate structure, is essential to success in the insurance business, which relies heavily on personal relationships, said Robert James, New York-based president of property/casualty at QBE North America, a unit of Sydney-based QBE Insurance Group Ltd.

He also stressed the importance of a corporate culture in supporting employees and demonstrating they are valued.

“Culture really is important, and what we are trying to do at QBE is to have more of a culture of accountability and empathy,'' he said. “To put it more simply, if it doesn't make common sense to you, just say, 'no, we're not going to do this.'”

The entrepreneurial spirit was born early in Sheldon Yellen, founder and CEO of Birmingham, Michigan-based Belfor Holdings Inc. Mr. Yellen said he left school at 16 to support his family and has worked seven days a week most of his life, including today, and has built the disaster recovery and restoration firm into a business with about $1.5 billion in annual revenue.

He urged insurers to forge more direct relationships with contractors, and said he generally spends more time with insureds after a loss than insurers, adjusters or third-party administrators.

“I get to know them. I get to know their families,” he said.

Toby Esser, CEO of London-based Cooper Gay Swett & Crawford Ltd., said he left school at 18 and became a successful broker by taking on challenges such as going to Colombia during the tumultuous 1990s to cultivate the country's reinsurance sector. At one point, he found himself held at gunpoint along a jungle road by armed men whose identity, whether guerrillas or government troops, could not be determined as they demanded identification.

“That's the type of thing you do in our business,” he said.