By TED CARTER
The prospect of calamities has kept insurance executives from sleeping easy since way back in the 1300s when enterprising Genoans began insuring ships and cargo. Nowadays, insurance execs are trying to head off a modern-day calamity of not having new blood to carry the industry forward as baby boomers retire from the field in droves.
Their efforts are getting much-needed help from several universities around the country that have become critical supply lines for moving millennials into the industry. In the Southeast, the University of Mississippi is a prominent contributor, as are the University of Georgia and Florida State University.
Ole Miss didn’t get its lofty insurance industry reputation overnight. It opened the program in 1948, making it one of the oldest in the nation.
The University of Mississippi’s Dr. Andre Liebenberg says the industry calls the personnel shortage a “talent gap,” but the finance professor and Gwenett & Jack W. Robertson chair of insurance concedes the flat truth is “there are not that many students who enter the universities that say, ‘I want to be an insurance major.’”
On the other hand, the university is making strides in efforts to make an education in insurance and risk management a more appealing option, says Liebenberg. “We try to change the students’ minds and perceptions of what insurance is all about.”
Too often, incoming students think of insurance as a briefcase-carrying life insurance salesman showing up at your door or Flo on the Progressive Insurance TV commercials, he adds.
Particular success, Liebenberg says, has come from showing the students the opportunity work in the industry gives them to tackle problems like cyber risks and major commercial risks.
Once in, few leave the industry, according to Libenberg.
Meanwhile, industry leaders are seeking to counter stereotypical views of their industry through rebranding, he says.
They also are trying to undo damage the industry caused itself years back through a misguided decision to cut back on training, says Jeffrey Rodriguez, CEO of Brown & Riding Insurance Services, a Los Angeles-based wholesale insurance firm and largest employer of Ole Miss graduates in risk management and insurance program graduates.
“The fundamental problem is that back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s the companies had training programs,” he says. “They eliminated those to save on costs. It really did cause some issues with bringing young people in.”
Some progress has been achieved on the branding, Rodriguez says.
“I would say it has become more fashionable,” he says, and cites the emergence of technology, especially the cyber world, as prominent components of the industry.
Risk management and insurance programs like those of the University of Mississippi also have become draws for a certain kind of student. They may not be entirely suited for the academic focus of law schools or other professional schools but can thrive in a program like the one Ole Miss offers, Rodriguez says.
These, he says, are “kids who think broadly and can think on their own.”
Though Rodriguez sees the university’s program as well suited for C and B students, he says they must work hard to make it to graduation. “I think the program emphasizes the real world rather than the academic world,” the chief executive says.
The result: The program has become very inviting to an industry looking to restock its work force, Rodriguez says.
The Brown & Riding CEO’s belief in the quality of the Ole Miss grads led him to open a service center in Oxford that employs many of the risk management and insurance program’s students part time. “Based on my experience, they are the best prepared students. That is why we invest heavily in the program,” says Rodriguez, whose company in addition to Los Angeles has offices in Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and other U.S. cities.
“They do backroom stuff for us” at the Oxford office, he says. Brown & Riding makes full-time job offers to ones who can “hit the ground running,” Rodriguez adds.
Graduates of the University of Mississippi program are also entering the ranks of FCCI Insurance Group, a 59-year-old Sarasota, Fla.-based commercial property and casualty insurance firm with a regional office in Ridgeland that employs 80 people.
FCCI has hired more than a dozen Ole Miss risk management and insurance grads in the last decade, says Thomas Quaka, senior vice president and head of the Ridgeland operation. Retention of the graduates has been over 90 percent, he says.
“Insurance education has become my most worthwhile passion,” Quaka says. “The program is essential to the productive future of the industry.”
U.S. job forecasts show just how essential.
“The industry will require more than 200,000 additional employees by the end of 2020,” Quaka says. “Attracting the millennials means supporting their source, IRM (Insurance and Risk Management programs).”
FCCI starts its recruiting at Ole Miss and other IRM programs no later than the students’ junior year, according to Quaka, a former chairman of the Ole Miss IRM program’s 25-member advisory board.
Current Advisory Committee chair Lance J. Ewing is a Texas-based executive vice president of global risk management and client services for Cotton Holdings, a national provider of telecom infrastructure and general business services.
Ewing is a believer in getting Ole Miss students to change their majors to risk management and has established a scholarship endowment to help make that happen. “It’s a way to lure them into the world of risk management,” he says.
Risk management, he says, is kind of a catchall for the industry and includes compliance, physical security and cyber security. The multi-faceted aspect is part of its appeal, Ewing says.
Ewing deepened his involvement with the Ole Miss program about 10 years ago when Dr. Larry Cox, the former head of the university’s IRM program, asked him to help add depth to the risk management curriculum.
Ewing says it is common for IRM grads to enter the industry as agents, underwriters or actuaries but eventually go into risk management. “You get to be boss,” he says. “It’s not sexy, but it is stimulating. “
In risk management, the insurance pro identifies the level of risk and can greatly influence whether a company grows, should or should not make a product or whether to self-insure, Ewing says.
“I’m very passionate about growing the next generation of risk professionals,” he says.
Liebenberg, the head of the Ole Miss IRM program, says 34 IRM students are interning around the country this summer. Many will return with an idea of where they belong in the industry, he says.
Regardless of their specific category choice, they most likely will get a foot in the door, Liebenberg says. “There is a home for everyone in the industry.”