New opportunities open up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2008, 12:00am

The insurance industry is undergoing changes as complex products enter the market, and this has created more openings for highly skilled professionals who want to develop their careers in a diverse field

The insurance industry is undergoing dramatic changes as new and complex products become available for Asian investors. In the past, the insurance sector relied mainly on a workforce of mobile sales agents.

However, a report by recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International has found that the emergence of bank assurance, direct sales, telemarketing and work-site and internet marketing require highly trained professionals.

This has led to higher training costs for insurance companies as consumers become more selective about how and what they choose to invest in. There is also a general blurring of the boundary that used to separate insurance companies and other players in the financial services sector.

All this has resulted in the creation of new job opportunities, and these days insurance companies are creating new positions to cope with the expansion of the sector.

In addition, this changing dynamic had led to new team structures where executives needed to understand multiple sales methodologies, the report said.

Companies are now seeking professionals with a broader base of skill sets. Speedy but effective adaptability seems to be heading up the list of new characteristics employers are homing in on. Besides having to be knowledgeable about increasingly complex regulatory and compliance issues in developed countries, this new breed of employees also has to deal with the blazing speed at which emerging markets, such as China and India, are progressing.

Rod Haire, the report's author and senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International in Hong Kong, said: 'There are a number of short-term and long-term strategies one can employ, but it's going to boil down to creativity.

'The skills required in the insurance and financial sectors today already exist outside of these fields, so we must think out of the traditional, confining box.'

Sales and marketing individuals in other industries have long been customer service-driven and Korn/Ferry believes there is a great benefit to bringing people from diverse disciplines on board.

Product knowledge can be taught, but process and approach are the core competencies now being sought. Another quick solution involves the hiring of project-based contractors, employed on a short-term basis.

These specialists are hired to recruit, train and build a dynamic, progressive team of high-performance employees. They are also expected to hire and develop their own permanent successors.

With a long-term perspective, Mr Haire is a firm believer in investing more in employees through innovative career development, leadership training and staff-retention programmes.

He said: 'It's no longer just about salaries. Today's young talent are also interested in continually developing functional and leadership skills, while at the same time getting more international exposure.

'Previously, firms would view these development programmes as overheads, but now they are handled as investments.'

Maisie Lam, director of human resources at Citibank Global Consumer Group in Hong Kong, concurred.

'We strongly believe in the training and promotion of our existing talent pool. The breadth and depth of our training programmes are well regarded and are more rigorous than required by the markets.

'This ensures our colleagues are of the highest standard when providing services to our customers.'

She believes the development of soft and hard skills at all levels are essential and, in reference to hiring, Citibank wholeheartedly embraces the idea of recruiting people from outside finance-related fields in order to ensure there is a continual flow of new ideas.

She said: 'Today, it is how companies attract and retain talent that counts.'

The hiring of overseas professionals has long been considered another effective method of coping with a shortage of knowledge and skills. This is still a widely utilised business practice, especially as key staff from reeling western economies continue to look for work elsewhere.

Asia has long been in the crosshairs of some of these professionals. However, there is one very vital change.

Depending on the role, many companies that look to hire staff from overseas are specifically adding the transference of knowledge and training of colleagues within the organisation as key performance indicators.

These recruitment challenges are not only hitting mature markets, such as Hong Kong, but are also changing how insurance and financial services are being managed in developing countries such as the mainland.

While international companies that have set up on the mainland can perhaps be more nimble than their domestic competitors, it is still these domestic players that make up the bulk of the market.

This may cause problems because a lack of skills and regulatory knowledge can have a negative impact on the business.

Nevertheless, the remedy is still the same in these markets as in those in more sophisticated areas of the world.

Mr Haire said: 'Tactical and sustainable strategies are crucial but ultimately creativity is at the epicentre of the solution. Companies that are willing to give their employees more training opportunities, and are able to provide progressive platforms for development, will be the ones willing to put their integrity on the line, subsequently gaining the complete trust of their customers.'