If one can characterize the recruitment of life insurance agents in agricultural terms, 2007 might best be described as a bumper crop year. And the harvest for 2008 is looking as good or better. That’s the consensus view of insurance executives and analysts interviewed by National Underwriter, most of whom noted that agent recruitment benchmarks were met or exceeded in 2007, and who anticipate more of the same for the year ahead.

The good news is mirrored in aggregate industry statistics for the first half of 2007. Margaret Honan, an analyst of distribution research at LIMRA International, Windsor, Conn., says life insurers have so far reversed what had been a downward trend. In contrast to the 22% decline experienced industry-wide between 2001 and 2006, career agencies witnessed a 2% gain through June of 2007. And multi-line agencies (those that also sell property-casualty insurance) enjoyed a whopping 14% rise in recruits.

Honan attributes the reversal in part to a refocusing among carriers on staffing requirements following the wave of company mergers and acquisitions in recent years. Among them: MetLife’s $11.5 billion purchase of ‘s Travelers Life & Annuity business; ‘s $7.5 billion acquisition of Jefferson-Pilot; and the merger of Union Central Life with Ameritas Acacia, creating a combined company–UNIFI–with more than $25 billion in assets.

The challenge now is to sustain the momentum. To that end, says Faye Williamson, director of U.S. client services at LIMRA, life insurance manufacturers need to better align their brands with their corporate missions.

“If you’re branding your career opportunity to recruits as ‘you will be a financial advisor,’ then that entails consulting on a range of financial services products,” says Williamson. “Companies need to ensure that their branding, systems and messages are consistent. Otherwise, new recruits will be walking out the door soon after you bring them in.”

Companies also need to ensure, she adds, that that the career benefits they promote dovetail with candidates’ expectations. In a 2007 survey of insurers conducted by LIMRA, 66% of respondents flagged income potential as a “top characteristic” used to promote a position in life insurance sales. Lower percentages cited independence (43%), professional growth (32%), flexibility (30%), prestige (13%) and other (20%). (See chart.)

One company that believes its branding message is on target is Guardian Life. Within the past year, the New York-based insurer boosted its field force to about 3,100 agents, a nearly 5% gain over that of 2006. Emily Viner, a field vice president at Guardian, says the increase was “just shy” of the company’s goal, which called for 3,200-plus agents. Achieving agent recruitment objectives in 2008 and beyond, she adds, will depend in large measure on the company’s ability to hire enough sales managers whose business it is to assess, hire, train, mentor and support new producers.

“The bottom line is that we need to have more people doing the recruiting job in the field, otherwise we can’t expect different results,” says Viner. “In 2008, I would like to see us add 40 sales managers to the 120 we now have.”

Achieving this gain, she adds, will be no small feat. The company recruits sales managers primarily from its ranks of top producers to ensure a fit with the corporate culture. Yet not all top producers are management material: Prospects must demonstrate an ability to train, coach and develop their new hires.

Michael Foxen, vice president of the Field Development Group at MetLife, New York, says that having enough sales managers on-board is key not only to meeting recruitment targets, but also those established for long-term agent retention. At many of its 160 firms, the company has in fact multiple sales managers involved in “active source recruiting” through agent referrals, sponsorship programs, college internships and the like.

To ensure that producers being considered for a managerial role are suitable for the part, the company enrolls them in a training program (created by LIMRA and dubbed Crossroads) that exposes prospects over a 3- to 6-month period to different facets of managerial work. Typically, says Foxen, an agency of 50 will have from 3 to 4 producers participating in the program at any one time.

Also looking to boost its managerial team is New York Life. Michael Burson, first vice president of the Agency Department at the New York-based carrier, says the company grew its managerial staff by 6% in 2007; nationally, the company has approximately 475 managers who supervise more than 10,500 agents.

To help motivate its sales managers (or “partners,” as they’re known internally) to meet agent staffing targets, the company offers bonuses–but only if the managers meet both recruitment and retention benchmarks. Thus, the focus is on recruiting high-quality individuals who are more likely than not to stay with the company for the long-term.

Among the chief qualities partners look for in candidates, says Burson, are patterns of success, an entrepreneurial spirit, high integrity, good communications skills, as well as a desire for the freedom, flexibility and unlimited income potential the career offers. It’s a stiff test: Of the approximately 60,000 job candidates that New York Life interviews annually, roughly 1 in 20 (approximately 3,000) are hired.

Yet one more factor is critical to ensuring that agents stay on for the long-term: the high retention of the managers themselves. “If you lose your managers, you’ll lose the agents they hire,” says Burson. “If you retain managers, agents will stay with the company. So agent retention is very much linked with management retention.”

Who are the big career agencies recruiting? A still large percentage hails from the nation’s college campuses. Among those eyeing university graduates is New York Life, which taps about 300 college students annually to participate in its internship program; and approximately 200 college graduates are hired annually.

A big focus at Guardian Life is college athletes, as well as college-age military personnel, because of the competitive and team spirit these individuals bring to the life insurance profession. At MetLife, 100 college juniors and seniors are tapped annually to participate in a fellowship program organized in partnership with the American College. Those enrolled join managers on sales calls, earn credits from the college by taking a one-week crash course in financial services, and write an essay for a competition, the winner of which receives a “Capstone” award.

Northwestern Mutual, too, aggressively mines campuses for top talent; and many are picked to participate in the company’s now 4-decade-old college internship program.

“What we’ve found is that younger candidates are more accepting of our expectations, discipline and daily activities,” says Michael Van Grinsven, director of the internship program at Northwestern Mutual, Milwaukee, Wis. “Older candidates who already have industry experience are less likely to want to commit to those expectations.”

Also a key focus of the carriers are career-switchers, particularly those occupying other sales professions–real estate agents, mortgage brokers, auto dealer reps, among others–who have a track-record in sales and can be expected to hit the ground running with a network of contacts. Scott Rich, an assistant vice president of net field force growth for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Springfield, Mass., says recruitment of these and other professionals in “distressed industries” were key to helping the company boost its career agent population from 3,700 to 4,400 producers since 2005–an 8% growth rate the company expects will continue in 2008.

Many of the companies are also working to diversify the field forces and, thereby, gain increased access to the nation’s ever-expanding multicultural markets. New York Life, for example, is heavily focused on 6 markets: African-American, Asian-Indian, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic and Vietnamese. For the 11 months ending in November, says Burson, 35% of new agents came from multicultural markets. Counting women, who accounted for 32% of new agents, the total “diversity” component of new recruits was 52%. Company-wide, the company’s agent workforce was up 14-15%.

To reach prospective candidates, insurers are increasingly supplementing conventional outreach efforts–newspaper advertising, job fairs and agent referrals–with new media. Many, for example, are using (or exploring) social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook, as well as the online video site YouTube. They’re also leveraging popular job sites, such as Monster.com, JobCentral.com and Career.com; and they’re enhancing career content on their own sites.

Yet, many of the new media initiatives need fine-tuning. Polly Painter-Eggers, an analyst of distribution research at LIMRA, observes that navigating to career information at company sites is often a laborious task. Five randomly selected job sites of “big, well known companies,” she says, still do not have a job/career link on their home page.

In addition to easing access to job information, may carriers also need to better customize the marketing messages they convey to different demographic segments.

“One size does not fit all,” says Williamson: “Boomers, GenXers and GenYers are looking for different things from a career in insurance and financial services. Whereas many boomers desire flexibility in terms of their work/life balance, younger agents generally are willing to put in the extra hours to achieve financial independence.”

“The more personalized the communication is to the prospect, the better will be the result,” she adds. “Recruiting is not a passive activity, but an active and engaged process. It needs to be driven, focused and personal.”

The outreach should thus take into account a candidate’s area of interests and skill sets. In 2005, for example, MassMutual established a new selection strategy based on individual agency profiles and market needs rather than a corporate-wide profile.

“That allows us to match company candidates not only by their personal background and personality traits, but also by the manner in which we think they would fit within a certain type of agency business model and market,” says Scott. “At MassMutual, we have a number of successful agency models–high-end financial planning, fee-based and insurance offices and hybrids–that combine variations of each.

“Our new selection system enables us to fit the candidate to the office,” he adds. “And that means there’s a greater likelihood of satisfaction and ultimately greater retention for the new agent.”

Ultimately, say observers, agent recruitment efforts need to be in tune both with a company’s growth objectives and capacity to absorb the influx of new hires. MetLife’s Foxen says that achieving long-term sustained growth requires recruiting on average about one-third of an agency’s workforce, a benchmark that MetLife has met at most of its member firms.

For Northwestern Mutual, however, 6% annual growth is the company’s sweet spot. Says Van Grinsven: “In a mature market like ours, if you get much past 6%, you run into a lot of infrastructure problems, specifically, having enough sales managers, space and technology to support the new recruits. If you grow too fast, it becomes difficult to retain people.”