When Bruce Winterburn, vice president of industry relations at Vertafore, bought a small-town independent agency a few years ago, he installed his 24-year-old son Cam as the principal.
The agency, which was 80 years old and had attritted down to a quarter of its original size, has since enjoyed incredible success—even though the team “didn’t do anything tricky other than bring in fresh insight,” Winterburn says. “This is where millennials can really have a positive impact—their ability to be a trusted advisor and consultant and build relationships in established communities.”
Gen Y staffers have a lot to offer your agency. But attracting them to the insurance industry is no easy feat—and retaining this job-hopping demographic requires a sharp shift in agency culture.
What Millennials Can Do For You
Millennials often bear the blame for the demise of the local relationship due to the perception that they prefer online communication and instant access to a personal touch. But ironically, community building is actually a skill most millennials are born with.
“People point to the past a lot of times, saying ‘you can’t do that in this modern age,’” Winterburn says. “I call BS completely on that. It’s exactly the opposite. The youth are involved in communities that reach farther out than anything their parents could do.”
Thanks to social media, millennial communities are digital communities—but that doesn’t make them inferior. “Millennials build relationships in a way that is much more efficient,” Winterburn says. “They still need to be able to shake someone’s hand and look at them in the eye and come to work on time and do all of those things, but if you cover those basics, they also bring in this ability to establish relationships digitally—and they’re earnest, true relationships.”
It’s because the digital economy is constantly evolving—and millennials are right at the heart of it, Winterburn says. “They reinvigorate what has made independent agents important in the past: the ability to establish a relationship within a community,” he points out. “They greatly expand the definition of both community and relationship.”
“I think what they’re doing is they’re dragging us to think differently,” agrees Lynn Harper, service manager at SilverStone Group, an independent insurance agency in Omaha, Nebraska, who participated in a panel called Generation XYZ during Vertafore’s NetVU conference in April. “Obviously they’re more prone to use technology. They dig in.”
Considering the wealth of progress millennial employees can bring to an agency, buying into stereotypes about this demographic of potential hires can therefore be a big mistake.
“When you hear these negative statements, usually it’s someone in my demographic who’s making them because they really just don’t appreciate how culture has changed,” Winterburn says. “I’m vice president of industry relationships for a billion-dollar insurance software firm and I will argue that my 21-year-old college daughter can influence more people instantly than I can.”
“We hear the common set—they don’t have work ethic or things of that nature, and it’s comparatively not true,” Harper agrees. “You just need to know what drives them, what motivates them, in order to get the job done.”
What You Can Do for Millennials
The secret for how independent agencies can not only attract, but retain millennial staff members lies in a simple question: Is your agency culture going to retain the talent it wants and needs? “We’ve really changed the culture of our agency to really fit the talent that we’re trying to attract and retain,” Harper explains, noting her agency now enjoys an employee retention rate in the 90s.
For SilverStone Group, the cultural shift required developing an internship program to attract local college students—“we’ve been able to retain a couple of them after they graduate,” Harper says—and defining a clear career path for new millennial hires. “We have an outline of what is expected of them to learn in the first few years within our agency,” she explains. “As a millennial myself when I started in the industry, I wanted to know where my career was going to be 20 years from now.”
The first year at SilverStone focuses on software training in order to teach young talent about processes and procedures, while the second year digs into insurance knowledge by sending them to classes and enrolling them in an in-house coverage training course.
“We really set the expectation for them of what to strive for in their first two years with us,” Harper says. “One thing people say about millennials is that they all want to be president tomorrow, but the agency’s not setting the expectation as to where their career could lead them. Especially with baby boomers retiring, there’s going to be a lot of promotional opportunities here in the next 10-15 years.”
SilverStone Group also utilizes flexible scheduling that allows millennial employees to work from home one day a week and encourages a team-oriented work environment. “We have an excellent collaborative work environment so no decision is made without the end user being a part of that decision, and that helps give them the big picture ofwhere our agency is heading,” Harper explains. “They feel like they’re a part of something, and that’s really important to this millennial generation.”
A flexible, inclusive work environment should also apply to in-office activities. “You hear so many agencies talk about the fact that they shut down social media and they don’t want people on Twitter because they’re not productive, but we went just the opposite,” Winterburn says. “We added a separate monitor just so they could keep their social stuff up and have their interactions all day while they were working. Agents have to kind of come to grips with allowing and empowering that.”
Ultimately, the tactics work because keeping millennial employees happy and satisfied on the job requires focusing on framing the conversation around something other than insurance itself.
“Where my son made the connection is it’s an opportunity to open a small business or be an active part in a growing small enterprise and make a good solid living,” Winterburn says. “The thing is getting them to understand that it isn’t selling steak knives door to door. It’s not a used car lot. These are business professionals that have great careers and great businesses and live in nice houses. It’s a very livable career.”
Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.