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Life Health > Life Insurance

Graduating Into The Life Insurance Business

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If you can use more agents with qualities the life insurance community so highly values–youthful vigor, an eagerness to succeed and an ability to be tutored in the fine art of life insurance selling–then consider heading down to the nearest college campus. Numerous financial services recruiters are doing just that. And they’re happy with the results.

“What college grads bring to the table is a high level of enthusiasm, energy and a willingness to learn,” says Mary Vandehey, manager of university relations and recruiting consultants at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Milwaukee, Wis. “We also see them as future leaders who in 15 or 20 years’ time will set the direction for Thrivent Financial.”

Adds Kirsten McKaskle, a senior market management consultant for college agent intern programs at New York Life in New York City: “They have a fabulous amount of energy. Their eagerness and enthusiasm are contagious in the office. They’re also very coachable.”

Those desirable attributes are prompting a growing number of life insurance manufacturers, general agencies, broker-dealers and financial planning firms to kick-start or beef up college recruiting efforts. A prime example is Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. The Milwaukee, Wis.-based company, which has had a college intern program since 1967, recruits about 1,000 students annually into the program–more than double the number of participants the company had up through 1997.

To connect with eligible college juniors and seniors, the company culls promising resumes from job-related websites, including Monster and CareerBuilder. Northwestern Mutual representatives additionally engage in on-campus career fairs, one-on-one interviews and class presentations. Professors and existing interns also refer students to the program.

Northwestern is not alone in establishing an on-campus presence. Thrivent Financial, too, establishes close ties with campus staff at more than 150 institutions through career events and meetings with those whom the students know best: alumnae, instructors and organizational leaders. The company also sponsors business etiquette training sessions and “tailgating parties”: gatherings inside rented booths at football games where company reps can discuss career opportunities with students.

Baystate Financial Services goes one step further: The firm recruits football players. Herb Daroff, a partner at the Boston-based firm (the company operates as Oceanstate Financial Services in Rhode Island), says Baystate sales managers connect with players through meetings with team coaches at various schools.

Why the focus on athletes? “The people who are the most coachable are those kids who have been coached,” says Daroff. “They have the discipline, energy and competitive drive to succeed in this business. And, like our other college grads, they haven’t developed bad habits working for other firms whose sales approaches don’t dovetail with our own.”

College recruiters interviewed by National Underwriter say that business and finance majors are a special focus of their campus outreach efforts because the students’ academic and career interests overlap with the life insurance and financial planning fields. About 50% of Northwestern Mutual’s interns, for example, have a business or finance background, according to Michael Van Grinsven, director of field recruiting at Northwestern Mutual.

Aflac, however, is dedicated to building a multiethnic work force. Since 2002, the Columbus, Ga.-based multiline carrier has secured more than 400 college graduates through multicultural market development grants to cities with high concentrations of minorities. The grants have funded efforts to bring recruits into contact with college students at historically black colleges.

To be most effective, sources say, campus recruiters have to craft marketing messages that appeal uniquely to students. Connie Schleich-Williams, a regional sales manager at Mutual of Omaha, Omaha, Neb., says that posters the company displays on campuses have fueled interest in sales career opportunities at the carrier. Two of the posters read in part: “Tired of the Ramen [Noodles] routine?” and “Life with mom & pop not so hot?”

Recruiters say the college graduates generally adapt more quickly to the job’s demanding requirements than do other new hires, such as career-switchers. The grads also boast longer staying power.

Van Grinsven says the five-year agent retention rate among new full-time agents who complete Northwestern’s internship is 50%–well above the industry’s four-year retention rate of 11%. Other carriers could not cite statistics specific to college grads, but anecdotal data at several companies points to higher agent retention rates.

Steve Ferrara, CEO of Northeast Planning Corp., a Cranford, N.J.-based general agency of Guardian Life, New York, says many college grads don’t face the financial burden of older recruits because they’re still living with parents, thus reducing the pressure to perform early on. But observers also credit the high retention rates to their summer internship programs.

“College interns get a faster start coming out of our program,” says Jane Conti, a vice president, agency department, at New York Life. “While students, they get licensed and trained, learn the business, develop proposals, and sell products. The program lets them test the career as a full-time opportunity to see whether it’s a fit for them.”

Northeast Planning enrolls its recruits into a “graduate squad program.” During 60 intensive days of “basic training,” new agents get licensed, acquire presentation and sales skills, and are drilled on what they’ve learned.

Ferrara adds college grads navigate the training best when placed together. Because of their shared experiences, the new hires are able to bond and interact more easily than when they’re teamed with older recruits.

For Baystate Financial, the key to a successful agent launch is in pairing new hires with advisors who have complementary skills. In these “mentor-prot?g?” relationships, the college grad prospects to and services the advisor’s lower-ranking “B” and “C” clients, enabling the advisor to devote more time to developing relationships with high-priority ‘A’ clients.

“The mentor-prot?g? formula has worked out phenomenally well for us,” says Daroff. “In one case, we took a kid who has a strong aptitude in investment planning and hooked him up with a rep who has no investment background. These teams work well because they draw on different talents.”

Such mentoring also has enabled college hires to become their companies’ top performers. For example: Justin Bennett, a 24-year-old college grad who was named Guardian Life’s top new agent in 2005, says Ferrara, enjoys an income “well into six figures.”

Many college graduates now also hold top positions in management. But not all start their corporate climb as producers. A professional development program offered by Lincoln Financial Group, Hartford, Conn., offers about 40 college graduates per year the opportunity to work in multiple capacities–life underwriter, marketing associate, financial analyst, compliance officer, among other positions–before settling on a desired occupation.

Karen Bradbury, assistant vice president and director of the professional development program at Lincoln Financial, says the company has benefited greatly by the program, as have the participants.

“Our rotational program offers [college graduates] an incredible opportunity to meet and know senior managers, participate in group projects, and try on different hats,” she says. “The vast majority of new hires have performed very well for us.”


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