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How to Get Millennial-Ready to Bridge The Talent Gap

For years, American executives and business owners have been told that when the baby boomers retire, we can expect to see a significant shortage of people with the skills, experience and readiness it takes to replace them. 
 
This looming “talent gap” is expected to hit the insurance industry particularly hard. Nationwide, more than 75 million baby boomers have plans to retire within the next few years. With only 50 million people ready to fill those vacancies, how will businesses — and the insurance industry specifically — close the gap?

Insurance Talent Gap

The number of workers in the insurance industry aged 55 and older currently is 30 percent greater than that of other industries, making that industry segment far more susceptible to the negative impact of the impending talent gap. 
 
Recently, the Griffith Education Foundation sponsored the Insurance Education & Career Summit in Atlanta. At this summit, industry leaders and faculty members worked together to identify the primary obstacles to attracting a larger pool of talent and developing the future leaders of the industry. The three main obstacles they identified were industry reputation, resources and recruitment. Other groups, such as McKinsey & Co., as well as trade organizations and other industry leaders, have reached similar conclusions. Identifying these issues is indeed the first step in addressing how to bridge the talent gap, but what can the insurance industry do to overcome them?
 
The insurance industry can begin by enhancing its reputation through strong relationships with the millennial population. Millennials prefer to work for and do business with companies that have a positive presence in their communities, are trustworthy, and are original or groundbreaking. But a 2008 survey revealed that 65 percent of millennials believed that the insurance industry had a poor public image and 53 percent felt the industry was not innovative. On the list of highly coveted careers in the United States, the insurance industry’s competitive standing is abysmal. To have a shot at persuading millennials to consider a career in the insurance industry, companies must show an unwavering commitment to their customers, promote transparent internal communication and offer opportunities for employees to support causes that are meaningful to them. 
 
For example, at Arbella, we have an employee advisory council, employee blog and regular employee surveys to ensure that our employees feel heard and are able to contribute to our success. We also provide numerous opportunities throughout the year for employees to give back to the community in meaningful ways. 

Millennials’ “Preparedness Gap”

Millennials are adept at identifying authentic, caring and trustworthy companies. But millennials’ skills and education have left them ill-prepared to begin working in their chosen fields. A 2013 Bentley University study has shown that recent college graduates are facing a “preparedness gap.” Essentially, students find themselves wholly unprepared for the workforce when the time comes for them to enter it. The study, known as the PreparedU Project, surveyed nine stakeholder groups (from business decision-makers and corporate recruiters to college students and recent graduates) on students’ preparedness for the workforce. The study concluded that the “lack of preparedness among millennials could have direct consequences on company productivity and the economy,” and that all parties should begin to work together to help close this gap. 
 
For the insurance industry, this means we must collaborate with local colleges and universities to ensure that their curricula, career services and other programs better prepare graduates for business careers. In turn, schools should place greater importance on hands-on learning and career advising. Schools also must offer real-world career expertise and advice to students as early as their freshman year. Students also must take an interest in preparing themselves for work by taking business courses even if they are not interested in a business career. 
 
At my office, newly hired employees are given extensive mentoring, coaching and feedback through onboarding and training programs that support them in their transition. New employees embark on a year-long process designed to help them thrive. Attention is paid to the whole individual and his or her needs outside of work, instead of only the person’s role at the company. The result is a more dedicated, loyal employee. 
 
At the opposite end of the spectrum, many baby boomers who face retirement find their transition uncomfortable to talk about and challenging to plan for. Working closely with these employees and talking openly with them about when and how they want to retire better prepares them for their future. This also creates opportunities for millennials and for the company as a whole. Many who are planning to retire prefer to work part time or as consultants. In our practice, we pair these successful, experienced employees with our millennial and Generation X employees to help train and mentor the younger workers. This strategy helps us retain our knowledge base while supporting our retirees-in-transition and providing our up-and-coming employees with the training and mentoring they need.

Agents’ Role

When thinking about closing the talent gap, it is also important for insurance carriers to look beyond their own organizations to the independent insurance agents who sell the carriers’ products. These local, small businesses employ thousands of people nationwide and are typically very involved in their local communities. However, they often lack the budget and expertise to promote their business and, as a result, are a well-kept secret to those seeking career positions. To support these agencies in growing their businesses, we have introduced a comprehensive sales development program designed to hire and train new sales talent for their local independent agents. Through a combination of structured classroom, online and on-the-job learning, these sales representatives build a deep understanding of the insurance industry, insurance products and professional selling skills. Providing these types of resources strengthens the carrier/agent partnership, fosters small business growth and provides long-term employment opportunities. 
 
Young professionals entering the workforce today are talented, motivated and technologically advanced. But they need much more from us as educators and business leaders than what we have been accustomed to. As an increasing number of insurance professionals continue to age out of the workforce, academic institutions and businesses must work together to develop the future of the industry. It’s up to all of us to usher this new generation across the threshold from students to well-prepared, skilled, lifelong learners. And unless we put these ideas into practice, this ever-expanding talent gap will continue to outrun us in the coming years.
 
But all is not grim for the insurance industry. In light of pending baby boomer retirements, insurance offers fast-paced career growth for talented individuals. The industry boasts numerous companies that are dynamic organizations, recognized as among the best places to work, that care deeply about their employees and their communities, and provide great benefits, a friendly culture and true work/life balance. 
 

Gayle O’Connell is senior vice president of human resources and marketing communications, Arbella Insurance Group, Quincy, Mass. Gayle may be contacted at [email protected] .