Insuring the future: Agents, NMC build new training program

TRAVERSE CITY – Area insurance agencies looking to add to their pool of qualified job candidates have gone beyond placing a "Help Wanted" ad for their next hire. Instead, they went to school.

The Bay Area Insurance Agents Association reached out to Northwestern Michigan College in the spring of '07 with the idea of offering a program in Insurance studies, said member Grady Jordan, who also chairs the association's higher education committee. NMC officials responded to the need, worked with agents to develop a curriculum and students are signing up for classes that start later this month.

Business Division faculty member Mary Ann Linsell drove the curriculum development process. "The original impetus for the program was to have something available that provided a new entrance into the industry," said Linsell. "We're responding to the community. If there's a need, we'd like to be able to fill it."

"The insurance industry has had a shortage of high-quality younger employees to fill gaps created by changes in the way the industry operates over the last 10-15 years," said Mark Priskorn of the Fawcett/Dopke Agency.

A lot of mergers and acquisitions in the insurance business over the last decade created centralization in the industry, he explained, and also increased the demand for good "field" employees, as well as sales professionals working for smaller independent agencies or for themselves as representatives of agencies.

Priskorn said Fawcett/Dopke would pay someone with experience in the field, including the NMC program, 10 to 20 percent more than someone with no education or specific work experience. In mid-July, the agency was trying to fill an opening for a licensed agent. "There was no one ideal candidate," adding that they had to adjust what they were looking for in a new hire.

The new Business program will offer a series of certificates in three insurance specialty areas: life/health, personal and commercial. The three certificates are designed to build on one another. Additionally, students who are pursuing an associate's degree in business administration can choose insurance as an area of concentration. There are also internship opportunities at local companies.

New focus, new career

Jordan, owner of Bay View Insurance in Traverse City, said the program targets both recent high school graduates and people making mid-life career changes, as in the case of area resident Sue Dawson.

She recently saw her 25-year career at DURA Automotive in Mancelona end when the plant announced closure plans earlier this year. Dawson already earned her associate's degree at NMC, but with no specific focus because, as she says, she "had a good job."

Dawson said the program seems like a good way to get "employable skills in a quick manner" and she said "the call" by area insurance employers expressing a specific need makes her believe the job prospects for local employment are good.

In Jordan's experience, it can take up to two years to get a new hire with no insurance background completely trained. "Now we can recruit from the program," he said. "This is a tremendous advantage." The association has also contributed $4,500 in scholarships.

Linsell added that one of the NMC insurance courses will likely be designated by the state as a pre-education course, one of the requirements prior to taking the state licensure exam. Right now, people seeking licensure have to travel to Lansing to take a one-week course. Being able to meet this requirement through NMC would not only make it easier on students, but save employers money, added Jordan. When he sent two employees this past winter for the course, it cost him $1,000.

Added NMC Trustee Elaine Wood at the board meeting during which the program was approved, "This was an industry-led, industry-supported initiative, and I'm pleased to see NMC responding promptly and appropriately."

And one of the program's first students is eager to get to class. "I was ready for a change so this is a positive thing," said Dawson of her mid-life career change. And she plans to get started right away, either with some tuition help through DURA's plan to re-train workers or without.

For details about the program, contact NMC's Business Academic Area at 995-1169 or visit www.nmc.edu/business.

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