Our industry does a lot of hand-wringing about how we’re facing a talent drain and a dearth of viable job candidates in the market. We all know the numbers: the frequently cited 2010 study by McKinsey says 20% of the current insurance industry workforce is near retirement, and the number will be up to 25% by 2018. Conventional wisdom says that insurance is a dull field that bright young people shun. All of this in spite of the many formal recruitment and mentoring programs that are out there.

But a recent article by blogger Eric Barker got me to thinking about this in a totally different way—from the young person’s perspective.

If we want young people to become successful in an industry rife with possibilities, we can’t do it with another cut-and-dried program: We need to be mentors.

Mentors aren’t just empty suits in the corner office, phoning it in. They are teachers, leaders, and confidantes, and their relationship with their protege is personal.

See also: 20 women in insurance you need to know

Barker approached the subject by starting backward: looking at the background of some of the most successful people in the world. In spite of their differences, virtually all of these movers and shakers had had an important mentor in their lives by the time they were college aged—whether it was a teacher, a coach, or a higher-up at a job.

Barker boils down a mentor’s job to three requirements:

  1. They give objective career guidance, including suggestions on assignments or an advantageous career path.
  2. They provide emotional support when times get tough, such as recommendations on work/life balance or how to deal with a difficult boss.
  3. They act as an effective role model, demonstrating appropriate behaviors for different situations.

Young people in today’s workforce are a lot more challenged than we ever were. Jobs are at a premium, with roughly three applicants for every open position. Many new employees are carrying heavy student loans. If they’re ambitious and excited about advancing in our industry, we owe them more than a rubber-stamped training and mentoring experience. After all, these are the people who ideally will one day be running your business.

Think back to your own career. Did you have someone at one of your earliest jobs who encouraged you, took an interest in you, showed you the ropes? You probably did.

Now it’s time to return the favor. And don’t think fobbing them off on a formal “mentoring program” set up at your agency or one of your insurers is enough. Barker had this to say about these:

Unfortunately, recent research has revealed that those in formal mentoring programs often fail to deliver on their rosy promises, and the participants may be left helpless and disillusioned. Possible reasons for this include a shoddy formal mentoring program structure, a matchmaking system that mimics blind dates from hell, or simply inadequate resources or rewards to support these programs.

Today’s young people are proactive and research-savvy, and Barker encourages them to take matters into their own hands and directly approach someone they look up to—in other words, to bypass the formal programs and seek out their own mentors. Ideally, these would-be mentors should fit the protégé’s career goals, avoiding “someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter,” someone who “scares you a little,” who loves teaching fundamentals, ideally someone older who has seen it all.

I won’t go into details, but Barker does, outlining exactly how potential proteges should approach their ideal mentors via referral or email (respect their time, ask good questions, establish common ground), how to act during the face-to-face meeting, and how to nurture the relationship that will hopefully develop.

I don’t know about you, but I would be flattered as hell if some promising up-and-comer approached me to be their mentor.  (Come on, guys, bring it on, and extra points if you like dogs, trad jazz and horror movies.)

This isn’t meant to denigrate any of the fine formal sponsorship, mentoring and training programs out there, because there are many. I’m sure your own agency has one of its own, whether it’s highly structured and measurable, or a simple pairing up of compatible old-timers and newbies. But all of us have a personal stake in perpetuating our business, whatever that business is. Extending a hand to an enthusiastic young person will benefit both of you.

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