North role

Manchester's insurance industry is continuing to enjoy a period of rapid growth, with much of the expansion in the broking sector. Sam Barrett explains the recruitment issues involved in filling these additional roles

A year ago, the success of Manchester's insurance industry looked as if it could become its undoing. Rapid growth meant that insurers, brokers and recruitment consultants were finding it extremely difficult to find the right people to fill the increasing number of vacancies.

Rather than slow the growth, however, reports suggest that the insurance sector in Manchester is still expanding. Leigh Lipscombe, manager of the Manchester branch of IPS, says that although most companies have ambitious expansion plans for 2005-2006, the majority of growth is occurring in the broking sector.

"Those brokers that maintained their status through the regulatory compliance deadline are now intent on expanding," he explains. "This makes sense as they could have sold up or merged in 2004 and avoided the cost and commitment of compliance."

With growth in the broker market, the insurers are never far behind.

"We opened our Manchester office in January 2004 due to demand from brokers," says Keith Jackson, Fusion general manager for the North. "It's a vibrant place to be but with such a lot of other insurers in the same area it does mean it can be difficult to find the right staff."

Fusion is not the only company to be attracted to Manchester. In the past couple of years, Brit, Quinn Direct and Esure have also set up operations in the city. Additionally, rehabilitation and occupational health provider HCML is about to take the leap from serviced offices in Manchester to permanent office space.

"There's a lot of insurance business in Manchester," says Yvonne McCallum, operations director at HCML. "We've got seven people based up there at the moment but we're looking to increase this to 25 in the next year."

For Ms McCallum, finding suitable people to drive this expansion is not too problematic. She explains that many of HCML's employees come over from Australia, where rehabilitation is more commonplace and, although initially attracted to the capital, many then want to move out.

Extending reach

It is not so easy for the insurers and many are finding they need to extend their geographical search to attract the right candidates. "We go for cross-Pennine advertising," explains Mr Jackson. This casts the net as far as Leeds to the east and Liverpool to the west. "We do have employees that travel in from these cities," he adds. "It's roughly an hour's commute, which isn't too bad."

Relocation is another option but, despite the huge number of television programmes suggesting we are all clamouring to get out of London, Simon Hodgin, area development manger at Axa, says that fewer people are considering this now than in the 1980s. "We do support relocation but it takes a brave person to move in today's climate," he says. "The insurance sector has gone through so many changes, with mergers making it much less stable."

Experience remains the Holy Grail when it comes to recruitment. "The problem is that everyone is looking for staff with at least two years' experience," says Mr Lipscombe.

With this level of experience scarce, salaries for anyone with a few years under their belts have had to increase. Stuart Murray, regional manager for Hillman Saunders in Manchester, says that in some instances, pay reviews are exceeding inflation. "Salaries are becoming increasingly competitive, especially within the commercial sector," he adds.

And, for the more experienced positions, in areas such as risk management and underwriting, it is even possible to pick up a London salary, according to Kay Walker, recruitment consultant with Hulton Walker.

Fight for experience

Unfortunately, while everyone is fighting over the experienced candidates, much less is apparently being done about replenishing the talent pool at the bottom end. "Not many are willing to give graduates or A level trainees a break into the industry and will go without staff rather than relax their entrance criteria or look at the trainee option," says Mr Lipscombe.

The few that do have training schemes in the city, for example Axa and Allianz Cornhill, do find that there are plenty of people interested in getting into the industry. Additionally, while it took some investment to set up the training programmes, they are pleased with the results and would run them again.

While these training schemes will help to address skill shortages in a few years' time, some positions remain particularly difficult to fill on an immediate basis. "You can't get an underwriter with five or more years' experience for love nor money," says Ms Walker.

She adds that although there are suitable candidates that can be headhunted, often they will not want to move. "Companies have definitely got better at hanging on to their staff," she adds.

This is certainly the message coming from Axa and Fusion, both of which stress that career progression, personal development and job satisfaction are important parts of the package they offer to potential recruits. "All our employees own the work they do, which is good," says Mr Jackson. "Additionally, they have two appraisals a year to identify any training and personal development requirements - the package has to be about more than the salary."

Work/life balance

Employers could also learn from the experience of other sectors. For example, according to Dr Geraldine Kaye, managing director of actuarial recruitment consultants GAAPS, a couple of the larger life offices now offer sabbaticals as part of their benefits packages. "The work/life balance is a big issue among actuaries at the moment and many, especially outside of London, now regard this as a more important part of the package than the salary."

Whether sabbaticals take off in the general insurance sector remains to be seen but it certainly looks as if employers are working hard at making their packages appeal to both current and potential employees in the city.

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