Employing the next generation Mid-Michigan schools partner to boost the insurance industry

While many mid-Michigan businesses struggle to attract young, highly skilled employees, few are as strategic as the insurance industry when recruiting talent.

Its initiatives start in area high schools and extend to colleges and universities with programs, part-time jobs and internships to entice young workers into careers it needs to fill now and that are vital to its future. The insurance industry is an important segment of the Lansing-area economy, although it is often overshadowed by the traditional economic triumvirate of cars, college and capital.

With six major insurance companies based in the Lansing region — AF Group, Auto-Owners Insurance, Delta Dental of Michigan, Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan, Jackson National Life Insurance Company and Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Co. — the industry is well established and diverse, according to economic development officials.

The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) boasts the region’s insurance and finance sectors account for 6.8 percent of total jobs, a higher concentration than in most metropolitan areas.

Combining property and casualty companies, health companies and the region’s sprawling network of agencies, LEAP’s Vice President of Business Attraction, Brent Case, estimates the insurance industry employment at 15,000 in the greater Lansing region. It is well-positioned for growth, he said, citing the state’s favorable regulatory environment, attractive living costs, the companies that are already based here and a diverse and experienced workforce.

“The number one thing companies tell us is their need for a talent pipeline. What our schools are doing is critical to recruiting more insurance companies to our town,” Case said.

LEAP is actively marketing the Lansing region to insurance-related businesses throughout the country, an initiative that board member and Lansing Community College (LCC) President Brent Knight said meshes neatly with the education offered at the college.

Knight explained that by working closely with the industry and other colleges and universities, LCC has developed courses that prepare students for immediate insurance jobs or offers a pathway to advanced degrees. The college has a close relationship with Ferris State University and Olivet College, both with well-regarded insurance education programs.

Students enrolled at LCC can transfer their credits and required courses to schools like Olivet College, which has established itself as a specialist in insurance and risk management, a curriculum that includes courses in commercial and personal insurance, agency operations, negotiation and persuasive presentations, licensing and ethics.

The college has about 140 students in insurance programs based in the business department and another 25 students studying actuarial science in the math department. Total enrollment at Olivet College is about 1,100.

Tom Humphreys, director of Olivet College’s Risk Management and Insurance Center and assistant professor of Insurance, Risk Management and Financial Planning, said the college’s focus on insurance education reflects the industry’s need for high quality talent.

“We have tremendous industry support and interaction. People from the agencies and the insurance companies will come and assist with classes and interact with students to give them a feel for the real world and how the industry is changing.”

Courses dealing with commercial and personal insurance, agency operations and risk management prepare students for national examinations administered by the Insurance Institute of America. The insurance industry is highly regulated and a state like Michigan requires the completion of course work as a prerequisite to licensing exams. Successfully passing courses offered by Olivet College, satisfies this requirement, giving students a jump start for jobs.

One of the most popular insurance programs at Olivet College is its insurance claims investigation minor. It’s a unique program in the field of claims investigation, according to the college.

“It’s really one of those things that can get students hooked, like the CSI shows you see on TV,” Humphreys said.

Virtually all students graduating from Olivet College’s insurance programs find employment in the industry with starting salaries that range between $40,000 and $60,000. Humphreys said a quarter of the class graduating in May 2017 already has signed job offers.

“There is such a need for high quality employees. We have companies that hire one of our graduates and who tell us that if we had four more students just like them, they’d hire them today.”

What the industry values in the young workers it hires is critical thinking and analytical skills. For Olivet College graduates, hands-on knowledge of the insurance industry is a plus.

Jackson National Life has established The Zone in East Lansing to support its recruiting initiatives. Located on Grand River Ave. in the former Barnes & Noble building (before that, Jacobson’s department store), The Zone, which opened in 2013, has provided part-time jobs for hundreds of Michigan State University students. The company sees it as a means to building a pipeline for new talent, an opportunity for students to learn about job opportunities after graduation, and for Jackson National Life to promote itself as a high-quality employer.

The setting is modern and engaging, with multi-purpose space, bleacher seating for large meetings and bike storage — workplace amenities that appeal to the millennial workforce.

Recruiting even younger workers to the insurance industry now starts in high schools. In December, Olivet College signed an agreement with the Charlotte School District for a program similar to one established last year between the college and the Lansing School District.

“Our risk management program is an opportunity for high school students to take classes and interact with industry professionals,” said Mark Coscarella, the Lansing School District’s deputy superintendent.

Juniors or seniors enrolled in the program spend three days in the classroom and two days at AF Group where they learn about career choices like agent, actuary, special investigator, marketing representative or underwriter. Through the Olivet College partnership, these students are able to earn college credit.

“The students love it.” Coscarella said. “Not only are they getting technical skills and college credit, but they are learning what it’s like to be in the workforce, faced with challenges and pushed to solve complex problems. They are learning those really important soft skills that are applicable in any field.”

One of the attractions is insurance industry salaries. The school district promotes the median state wages for potential jobs: insurance sales agent, $48,210; actuary, $94,340; claims examiner, $61,191; and fraud examiner, $62,510.

The sense of stable employment is one of the benefits that LEAP cites for jobs with area insurance companies.

“Look at the announcement recently that General Motors was laying off the third shift. That’s 900 jobs,” said Case. “Of course, we love General Motors, but the insurance industry doesn’t experience those kinds of declines.”

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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