Last week, I had the honor of being invited to speak at Mississippi State University’s I-Day event, and annual conference the school of insurance and risk management holds both to get the industry together to discuss matters of importance, but also to give their own students the chance to meet with industry figures they might one day rub shoulders with professionally. One of the things I got to speak at was a career session in which I joined two career agents for the P&C industry to talk about the different kinds of opportunities that await those who choose insurance as a career.

I particularly enjoyed this – as I do every occassion I have to meet with and talk with any students (but especially my friends at MSU) – because like so many people, I fell into the insurance industry. So did my fellow speakers at the career session. Not that falling into this business is bad; I don’t think I would rather have fallen anywhere else, really. But I do think that given how fast this industry is evoling, and how much its market conditions are evolving too, tomorrow’s insurance leaders are going to need to start doing their homework early on, and that’s why I find the growing strength of college and university level insurance programs such an encouraging sign. This is a field that certainly warrants dedicated study, and the more folks who graduate from college with a degree specifically geared toward a career in insurance, the better it is for the industry and the policyholders. Everybody wins.

Something I saw this morning takes all of this one step further. Or I should say, one step earlier. The Griffith Insurance Education Foundation, a non-profit group founded in 1947 and generally funded by donations from the insurance industry, is promoting its Insurance Education Institutes, an effort to educate teachers at the 4th- 8th- and 12th-grade levels on how to better educate their students about the role and nature of the insurance industry. So far, the Institutes have trained more than 200 teachers, and according to the Griffith Foundation’s director of education, Jason Terrell, they are seeing a direct correlation between the rising number of educated educators and high school graduates enrolling in college-level insurance programs.

The idea of the Institutes is to teach kids early on what insurance is, as part of a larger national effort to increase kids financial literacy. The Griffith Foundation wants to make sure that an understanding of insurance is part of that literacy, and I think it is a great idea. Terrell told me point blank something that I feel quite strongly about: the industry in general has a three-fold problem. One, people think of insurance and they think of a homogenous industry when in fact this industry is quite a diverse confederation (if you could even call it that) of distinct but connected industries. Two, people have a generally poor opinion of insurance, perhaps because they remain so ignorant of what it really does and why it is so important to industry, economy and society. Three, that the industry itself has yet to offer a single message to address all of this. Individual companies can do outstanding jobs on their own, but none can carry the weight for the entire industry. This initiative of the Griffith Foundation aims to address all of these problems by getting kids aware of what insurance is and how it works, getting them to understand why it’s important, and speaking to them with a voice on behalf of the entire industry. The most far-reaching goal here is to make a career in insurance one of those things kids want to do when they grow up.

When I spoke with Terrell, he offered me some details on some of the educational programming they design for the 4th grade level. At that early stage, things tend to remain on a more abstract level, but it still is a good place to get the ball rolling.  The teaching rests on five core concepts.

1. Basic risk management. The idea here is to teach kids what it means to avoid unnecessary risk by drawing comparisons to riding a bike. What do kids to to keep themselves safe, or avoid getting injured? Wearing a helmet and practicing good road safety are what first come to mind.  And as the kids already understand that, they realize they already understand a little bit about the concept of risk management itself.

2. Property and liability insurance. This is a trickier concept, but it is conveyed by asking the kids to list the things in their bedroom that they own (in the case of my daughter, it would include 1,000,000 Polly Pocket toys, scattered liberally across the floor) and describing what would happen if somebody took them. This gets across the concept of value, ownership and most importantly, the difficulty of recuperation.

3. Health, disability and life insurance. This gets very abstract, Terrell said, because these are a lot of concepts kids really are not equipped to think about in specific terms. But what the education does is talk about things like how parents pay for things like food and clothing, and what would happen if that went away? Kids can’t or don’t want to think about their parents disappearing, but they can more readily dgest the notion of money running out, which is a start, and ties with life and disability. On the health side, the focus is on preventative care, such as, when we brush our teeth, we avoid needing to have a dentist fill in cavities later on. I love this part, because in the health insurance world, we could be seeing a lot more effort on the part of the industry to promote and incent healthy behavior. It is a point Terrell agreed with me on, and this initiative helps to encourage that concept at the root level. Or as Terrell said, it trains kids not to think of insurance as a financial instrument but how it relates to their lives.

4. How the insurance industry conducts business. At this level, it’s complicated, Terrell said, so they talk in very basic terms about the claims process, tying it to imagining what might happen if a fellow student several lockers down the hall suddenly lost some of his or her things. How would they go about recovering them? If something happens to Dad’s car, how does that get taken care of? It’s very real-world, but also very high-level.

5. Careers in the industry. The xercise here is for the kids to go to their parents and have them find somebody they know who works in the insurance industry. The kids then go and talk to those people and report back on what they have learned. Terrell said that in most cases, the industry professional contacted will be an agent, which is fine, but once the program moves to the 8th and 12th grade levels, the education on this part will move beyond the agency level so the kids understand that there is a whole lot more to insurance than the process of selling it.

The first job of this entire K-12 initiative, Terrell stresses, is to educate students about the image of the industry. Before they can talk about the basics of insurance, there is a need to get the kids to understand how insurance is tied to society as part of a larger whole. “Until we solve the image issue, we are not going to be able to get to the education level,” Terrell said. I could not agree more.

While this particular initiative is only about three years old, I think it offers a lot of potential, and I hope the industry offers what help it can to keep it going. On that front, later this year, the Griffith Foundation will be launching its Insurance Education and Career Summit, held on September 26-28 in the University of Georgia’s Atlanta Center in Atlanta, GA. There, the Griffith Foundation will be working on bringing the entire insurance industry together to develop a common strategy for encouraging today’s youth to get interested in insurance early on. The Griffith Foundation recently sent a memo to industry CEOs asking them to send just one person from their company to attend the event. Those wanting to help out can visit www.griffithfoundation.org/summit. There is a registration form there as well as other information on getting involved.

In the meantime, I’m going to go back to grading my papers, but let me start by giving the Griffith Foundation an A+ for taking a remarkably pro-active and long-term approach to a number of chronic problems that have held the industry back for many years. Nice work.