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MINORITY PROGRAMS DRAWING NEW TALENT

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Programs aimed at drawing minorities to the insurance industry are essential, and there's reason to believe they are having some success, say those championing such programs.

However, a hot job market is making it difficult to gauge the success of programs aimed at attracting minorities to consider careers in the insurance industry, says one executive.

"It's hard to determine the success with the economy like it is and the job market like it is. I think everybody's having trouble getting folks," said Harold Mitchell, agency field executive for State Farm Insurance Cos. in Duluth, Ga.

"I hate to say it, but I guess in a bad economy is where you determine whether you're getting the cream of the crop," Mr. Mitchell said.

Joe Fleming, director of public affairs in the Southeast region for the American Insurance Assn., cited a 1995 career fair the AIA sponsored with the Atlanta Urban League and about 50 insurers for minority students.

"That was a real success, and we exported that program to Kentucky and the Urban League there and also to South Carolina," Mr. Fleming said. A similar career fair is scheduled in South Carolina this month.

While hard data might be lacking, based on anecdotal evidence, the job fairs have definitely been successful at encouraging minority students to consider careers in the insurance industry, Mr. Fleming said.

"I think at the first one we had 300 to 400 students participate. I'd be willing to speculate that the vast majority of them hadn't considered the insurance industry before," he said. "I think we opened some eyes to opportunities in the industry, and that might be the catalyst to institutional change."

An interest in institutional change in the insurance industry provided the original motive for the AIA's involvement in minority recruitment in the Southeast, Mr. Fleming noted.

"Back in 1994, there were some legislative hearings in Georgia from some insurance regulators who were concerned about insurance redlining," he said. "We saw that as an opportunity to really take a proactive position and address some of the regulators' concerns."

To that end, the effort they crafted included connecting minority agents with standard insurance companies and bringing insurance company representatives into Atlanta neighborhoods to show them firsthand some of the property they were being asked to cover.

In addition, the AIA and others in the insurance business decided to take steps to expand the number of minority employees in the industry. "We decided that we would embark on a program to expose more students to the opportunities that the insurance industry affords," Mr. Fleming said.

The AIA's minority recruitment efforts haven't been directed exclusively at college students. In Boston, the organization had been involved with Urban Underwriters Insurance Agency Inc., the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Assn., some insurers and Roxbury Community College in a recently completed two-year program aimed at college-educated workers who are considering career changes.

The course was designed to give participants a broad overview of how property/casualty insurance works, to help them make a smooth transition into the insurance industry.

"It was unique. We weren't aware of anything like it in the country," said Anne M. Doherty, the AIA's director of public affairs in Boston.

"I think we averaged about 12 a class, and we've tried to stay in touch with them to see how many have gotten jobs in the industry," Ms. Doherty said. "I know of four that have."

With the AIA's original two-year commitment to the program now complete, Ms. Doherty said she wasn't sure whether the program would be reinstated in the future.

But that sort of program, gathering a group of varied partners to promote the goal of bringing minorities into the insurance industry, is typical of the sorts of efforts being crafted, State Farm's Mr. Mitchell suggested.

"I think the insurance industry is trying to develop partnerships not only with some of the universities but some of the consumer groups, the Urban League and others, to make an inroad into getting people interested," he said.

The best programs, Mr. Mitchell said, are those that give potential insurance industry employees the opportunity to learn about the industry firsthand from those already in the business. "In reality, I think the best way of getting new employees is by putting them in touch with our existing employees," Mr. Mitchell said.