Experts: Stuffy insurance firms need infusion of Web 2.0

Challenged by a looming labour crunch, the insurance industry needs to act quickly to meet the work-style needs of an entirely new breed of employees

The North American insurance sector is ill equipped to meet the technology needs of a new breed of employees slated to enter the workforce, experts say.

The industry, they say, is also unable to provide users with the type of interactive tools they're clamoring for.

It's a situation that needs to be rectified quickly particularly given the looming labor shortage, they note.

Roughly 60 per cent of those in the business are more than 45 years of age and there aren't enough new employees coming onboard to replace those retiring, according to the "Millennials in Insurance Survey 2008" conducted by KRC Research.

The survey was sponsored by Insurity and Microsoft.

And the imminent labor crunch isn't the only scary part. As baby boomers retire, the dire prospect of losing valuable expertise and knowledge also greatly worries some executives.

"We have a brain drain as part of that retirement," said Bill Hartnett, director of US insurance industry solutions at Microsoft. "A lot of the accumulated knowledge required to run the insurance business is still in people's heads."

If you want to be an underwriter you get assigned to a senior underwriter and work alongside for five to 10 years, and then you get to write your own book.

But the new generation of workers doesn't expect to have that type of apprenticeship environment, he noted. In fact, they're probably not going to be working for the same company in five years.

Instead, they see their professional lives as a series of projects, and they're going to fit their work in around their personal lives, the Microsoft executive noted.

"That has some pretty big implications, especially when it comes to technology."

The baby boomer generation had access to technology they couldn't imagine having at home.

But over the past 10 years or so, that's changed, said Hartnett. Today people often have better technology in their pockets than they would find in an insurance company.

Members of the millennial generation not only use Web search and e-mail, he said, but are heavy users of social networking sites.

Most check these sites on almost a daily basis and are typically not heavy users of e-mail, since it's become more difficult to manage with so much spam.

Potential employees expect to be able to apply the information they need to do their job using Web-based search tools, but a typical insurance company doesn't provide for that.

"Most of the information is still in filing cabinets, and that's not searchable," said Hartnett. "So that's potentially a problem for the insurance business."

The norm today is for most employees to be provided with a company- PC and e-mail address.

Many millennial workers expect to be outfitted with much more -- technology such as a tablet or mobile PC, and access to their social networking sites and instant messaging.

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