From compliance to prospecting, life insurance agents and advisors are buffeted by challenges as never before. Among them, one is getting too little attention: succession planning.

For the industry, it’s potentially the most serious of all. This creeping crisis could soon reach a crescendo because of an aging industry workforce. The average producer is in his or late 50s, so retirement for many is not far off. Yet, too few of these financial professionals have planned for their exit.

When they do leave the business, there may have no one on staff to serve the orphaned clients they leave behind, not to mention the many middle market prospects who urgently need insurance and financial planning.

Fortunately, more industry-watchers are sounding the alarm on this nascent problem. One I interviewed at NAILBA 34 — the National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies, which held its 2015 annual meeting in Orlando, Nov. 19-21 — was LIMRA Associate Research Director Laura Murach, who focuses on independent distribution.

The need for transition planning to the next generation of producers, she noted, isn’t just because boomer-age advisors are entering their golden years. Murach’s team recently surveyed some 20 brokerage-general agencies (BGAs) and found that nearly half of their producers (49 percent) started their careers as independent agents. The traditional “feeder” system for the independent channel — carrier-operated career agencies — now accounts for just 51 percent of all new agents and advisors.

That shift is concerning in part because independent producers enjoy less access than their career agency counterparts to the start-up sales training and support they need to build and operate successful practices. They’re also disadvantaged financially relative to their captive peers, as they can’t count on a salary-like compensation (or “draw”) to keep them afloat for the temporary period needed to transition to a commission structure.

Compensation aside, some BGAs are availing their independent producers of best-in-class training and support, often in partnership with an independent marketing organization. Partners Advantage is one example of such a firm. James Wong, a senior vice president for the organization and a panelist at NAILBA 34’s opening general session, detailed an impressive array of virtual educational tools — blogs, podcasts, webcasts and instructional videos — that producers can access via Partner’s web platform.

But such cutting-edge resources are not as widely available as they should be. To be sure, independent producers can tap into other industry resources to learn about best practices and tips. The Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) and the National Association for Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), among other organizations, offer top-notch professional development content at their annual meetings and (in NAIFA’s case) at local chapter gatherings.

Particularly relevant in terms of succession planning is mentoring. The MDRT has a long-running program to help aspiring MDRT members attain MDRT production levels and gain admission to the organization by teaming them up with industry veterans.

Many of these mentors are cultivating MDRT “aspirants” or protégés to be their successors: first by allowing them to service less profitable clients; then, when the time is right, giving them full control of their practices. When managed well, the hand-off assures not only a smooth transition for the clients, but also a nest egg for the retiring advisor.

More MDRT-like mentoring programs are needed. And more advisors need to join organizations that offer them.

Alas, the associations are increasingly have trouble filling their ranks. NAIFA’s membership now stands at about 43,000, well shy of 100,000-plus it enjoyed in its heyday.

Why the fall-off? The rise of the independent channel is a big factor. Producers heading up their own shops may be challenged to finance continuing education absent carrier funding. They’re also less connected to the networks of advisors and carrier reps who can alert them to, and motivate them to take advantage of, professional development opportunities.

This includes best practices on exit planning. Now underway at LIMRA, said Murach, is a “deep dive,” inter-channel survey of advisors — career agents, registered investment advisors and independent producers — the research to explore in part their transition and succession planning.

The study may validate Murach’s running “theory:” that agents and advisors who work on commission only are less motivated than their fee-based counterparts to plan for their departure. Whereas the latter are charged with managing a client’s investments on an ongoing basis, the former have less of a financial incentive to maintain contact with existing clients (cross-selling opportunities notwithstanding). And thus the price to paid for an unplanned exit is lower.

A commission-only compensation structure, said Murach, raises a related issue: how to value a practice destined to be sold to a protégé or outside party. So long as life insurance policies remain in force, they can provide an ongoing revenue stream (via renewal or trailing commissions) for a successor advisor, who in turn can use the cash flow to buy out the practice and provide for a departing producer’s retirement.

That ongoing revenue can’t, however, be counted when the policies pay out to beneficiaries. And often these beneficiaries — typically the spouse or child of the insured — isn’t keen to do follow-up business with an insurance professional who only developed a professional relationship with the deceased.

In short, self-employed agents and advisors face a host of succession planning challenges. Surmounting them will be critical if the independent channel is to continue thrive. The sooner the industry recognizes this — and takes appropriate, meaningful action to address the issues — the better it will be for everyone with a vested stake in  independent distribution: carriers, BGAs, producers and, not least, consumers.