How do we attract the next generation to a career in employee benefits?

Teacher with young people in computing classThe insurance marketplace continues to grow along with the population. How can carriers and agencies ensure their workforce grows as well? Simply recruiting from competitors is unsustainable.  There aren’t enough people to fill the available seats.  Any individual company might win the best talent by offering higher pay, better benefits, and having the best training and culture, but that doesn’t solve the problem for the overall industry.  How do we, as a collective industry, attract the right, talented people to the employee benefits industry?  

It’s a classic marketing problem.  We have a great product in terms of a career offering, but no one knows about it. We’re the Betamax of financial services!  Not only that, but the little that people do know about insurance doesn’t draw them to it. Insurance sounds boring.  I feel for any employee benefits parent who went to their kid's elementary or middle school on career day and had to follow the cop or firefighter. How many kids did you see dressed up as voluntary and worksite sales reps last Halloween? I’m not aware of any show that makes the insurance industry look cool, like D&D Advertising on Melrose Place, ER, Boston Legal, Law & Order, or Billions.  Even ranchers have Yellowstone.  What do we have?!

It sounds a little silly, but how much more do college students know about ‘work’ than they did in high school or middle school?  How do we solve this?  Let’s start by reviewing what we offer:

Stability- Insurance has been around for hundreds of years.  Many top ancillary carriers have been around for at least 100 years.  That says something.  But I’m not referring to the stability over the very long term. I’m referring to how the industry weathers the ups and downs of business cycles.  There were no mass layoffs in the Great Recession, and there were no mass layoffs during COVID.  On the contrary, I was still asked to recruit salespeople during both events.  

Variety-There is something for everyone.  Certainly, this is an industry where B students from state colleges can make M.D. money!  But there are also service roles for those who don’t want sales, underwriting roles for those who like numbers, actuarial roles for the best math students, operations for the strategists, management for those good with people, etc.

Meaningful-We’re not selling cigarettes or polluting the planet.  Sure, we’re not running into burning buildings and finding cures for diseases, but insurance is important.  The most important benefits are those you hope you don’t have to use.  Life insurance, disability insurance especially, but also critical illness, and hospital indemnity.  God forbid you experience  the event and don’t have the coverage.  This industry works together to get the most people the right coverage at the best price.

Lucrative-You get paid well to do it.  The more risk you take, the more you’re paid. If you are in commission-oriented roles like sales, you’ll make more money if you’re successful.  However, you’re still doing this with the backing of a big insurance company.  You’re generally not having to borrow against your house or 401(k) or secure investors to get a business started with all those associated risks.

So how do we communicate these benefits, and to whom do we communicate them?  The lowest-hanging fruit is to pay your current employees referral bonuses.  Paying them well for recruits who last beyond a certain time is far less costly than the opportunity cost of open positions and of paying internal or external recruiters to find people. However, it takes more than relying on current employees to find your next generation of talent. Here are some ideas:

College Campus Recruiting

In the past,  insurance companies have recruited at college campuses. This decreased during Covid times but is returning. Regardless of major, college graduates have proven they have enough tenacity to finish four (or five) years and complete a task.  They’ve had to think, write, solve problems, and socialize.  Campus recruiting might be done as part of a national strategy or by regional offices recruiting at local colleges.  Don’t just show up and hope for the best.  If possible, get the word out to niche groups such as business clubs, fraternities and sororities, sports teams, and school clubs to get people to sign up for interviews.  Personally, I was lucky enough to be at a university, in a fraternity, where one of my fraternity brothers had a father who was an RVP at one of the carriers.  It exposed many of my friends to this industry, and many have gone on to have amazing careers.

Sales Competitions

I’ve heard of a couple of carriers and agencies who sponsor sales competitions e.g. DECA and FBLA.  They help to judge, mentor, role play, etc. This gives carriers a first look at talented students and exposes the students to group insurance personnel.  They get to see that they are nice, regular people!

Career Fairs

These occur frequently, and there are all kinds.  I just received an email about an event hosted by the University of Denver and the University of Colorado Springs.  They are expecting 400 to 600 registered alumni from fifteen different Colorado universities to attend.  They all have bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees.  See if there are any planned near you!

Life Experienced Hires. (LEHs)

In the past, some insurance companies hired ‘LEHs’.  These are people 3 to 5 years out of college who are in non-insurance sales.  They’ve got a degree, and a work ethic, they’ve performed well in another business-to-business sales environment, but if they can perform equally well in group insurance, they can earn more.  They could be Enterprise Rent-A-Car salespeople, equipment leasing sales reps, software sales reps, etc. I don’t know of any company with a structured LEH program anymore, although I know it happens in case-by-case situations, usually through friends of those already in the industry.

Diversity Hiring

I’m wading into treacherous waters here.  I could argue that diversity is a socio-economic thing that encompasses all ethnicities, but I suspect that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategies are for non-white ethnicities. If we want to go beyond lip service for hiring that kind of diversity, then we have to go to where the diverse candidates are.  Some insurance companies actively recruit at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  However, university is expensive, and not everyone has the means to attend, even if they otherwise have the ability.  So maybe some candidates are at community colleges. Can you be flexible on the requirement for a four-year degree?  Talk to teachers, department heads, and career counselors at community colleges to get referred to those who show the right stuff.  We have a chicken and an egg situation here.  To the degree that many young people don’t know what they don’t know about jobs that exist in insurance, it has to be worse with diverse candidates. Since there are so few ethnically diverse people in sales and service roles in employee benefits today, who will tell the next generation about it?

If DEI candidates graduate from universities in lower percentages and they are not attending the career days in their senior year of college, then you have to go somewhere else to find them.

I would argue we need to look at high schools.  Insurance company recruiters need to find a way to get in front of students at clubs, sports teams, career centers, etc., at high schools to let students know that these jobs exist, what’s required, and what they can pay.  Maybe something you say provides the ‘north star’ that motivates someone to go to community college or to get a four-year degree.

How to Retain Employees: Bring People Back to the Office!

When you’re at one of the above venues, and you’re talking to a sharp young person, what else will attract them beyond the selling points of our industry mentioned above? Camaraderie, cohesion, belonging, training, and prospects for the future. Try to build critical mass and have people come into the office a certain number of days per week. Build a culture. Invest time and energy into them. Having critical mass in an office gives you the best chance at offering those things.

After the home office training, where you learned about underwriting, claims, service, installation, the lifecycle of the contract, etc., there’s still a lot of day-to-day practical application that has to be learned. It could be a drain on one manager's time to be fielding questions from a rookie all day, but if you have a couple of more seasoned sales reps and some service staff who can all answer those questions, it’s much more of a team approach to training.

I would advise any young person coming into the industry today not to worry about where they could earn the most money possible in the early years.  More important is building relationships, and acquiring skills and knowledge.  A solid foundation built in one’s twenties will pay off for decades later. To that end, what do you offer young and diverse employees when you’ve recruited them? Will they be left to follow the boss around and hope for time crumbs? A few online classes? Or something closer to the old school six months of training across company functions?  The more you can offer someone, the more likely they will want to join you and stay with you. They all grew up on ‘The Office’ and probably want some form of that in real life!

We’ve covered a lot of ground, and there are no easy answers. The best solution for attracting the next generation of young people into insurance is a combination of all of the above.  We need to get the word out about the positives of a career in employee benefits to students at all levels, starting as early as high school.  Then when we’ve attracted them, we need to invest in them. Finally, those that receive that investment can pay it forward and share the joy with the next generation behind them.