Customer Service Focus
By Mitch Dunford
BRIDGING THE CSR TALENT GAP
High school career and technical education program gets green light in Texas
For years, alarm bells have sounded over the insurance industry’s looming talent gap. With experienced workers retiring faster than younger workers can replace them, the industry has scrambled to attract new blood. Agencies and companies have doubled down on recruiting, and industry initiatives have sprung up to reach high schools, universities and retired military, to name just a few potential sources of talent.
Still, efforts have fallen short.
Now comes a new program for high schools that could change the way the industry trains and hires customer service employees—a category of insurance workers that is in high demand. The program is offered by The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research, and what makes it so promising is that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has approved a two-year course for rising juniors based on the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) designation.
Three semesters of coursework prepare students to take the CISR exam. The fourth semester is an internship with a local insurance agency or company. The program fits squarely into the increasingly popular career and technical education (CTE) track; students earn an industry-recognized designation, get hands-on experience and acquire highly marketable job skills—all before graduating from high school.
Three semesters of coursework prepare students to take the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) exam.
The fourth semester is an internship with a local insurance agency or company.
The National Alliance spent over a year reimagining its adult CISR curriculum for a high school audience and piloting the classes in two Texas school districts. The result is a stand-alone course that can be taught in any school, large or small, by a teacher who may have little familiarity with insurance and risk management.
Different than anything tried before
“Our program is different than anything that has been tried before,” says Dr. William T. Hold, Ph.D., CIC, CPCU, CLU, president and co-founder of The National Alliance. “The CISR course is now an accepted, accredited high school class in Texas, just like algebra or English. What’s even better is that it meets the criteria for CTE.”
As Dr. Hold explains, school districts in Texas receive more money from the state if they offer a technical career class. One with an internationally recognized certification, and the possibility of internships and good job prospects, is all the more appealing to school districts.
“The schools want assurances that what they’re offering their students will actually lead to a good job,” Dr. Hold says. “If they teach a class in real estate, are there Realtors® who will hire them? Once we show them there is a big demand for CISRs and the fact there are plenty of local insurance jobs, they become quite interested.”
Getting Texas to approve the course was an important and strategic first step, notes National Alliance CEO William J. Hold, MBA, CRM, CISR. Texas has the most public school districts of any state, and it has the second-highest population of insurance agents, behind California.
“TEA approval gives us a toehold in a state that other jurisdictions tend to follow,” says The National Alliance CEO. “It also helps that we have such a strong insurance community—a ready source of employment for students who’ve earned the CISR.”
Indeed, that is one of the major selling points for the program. “We’ve had an enormous amount of support from agents in Texas and across the country,” says Dr. Hold. “They’re clamoring for trained people. To find someone who has a CISR, and the agency doesn’t have to pay for it, how can anyone object to that?”
According to Paula Cook, project manager for the new program, many of the agents want to help with the initiative. “They remember being mentored when they were young and want to give back to the industry,” she explains. “They’re very willing to participate and partner with their high schools.”
Program tailored to high school students
The National Alliance hired veteran Texas educator Tasha Sheehan to shepherd the course through the Texas public school system and work with individual districts to roll out the classes. With years of experience managing CTE programs, she’s aware of the special requirements for high school curricula.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on lesson design and ways to engage high school students,” Sheehan says. “It’s very interactive, allowing students to digest information in small chunks so they have a better chance of remembering it. They can apply it, discuss it and work through their own study guide during the semester. It’s kind of like putting together Legos to build your own learning pyramid.”
The content is broken down into weekly units, with a lesson each day. Those lessons are web-based, with professional actors delivering video instruction in a compelling and straightforward way. During each lesson, there is time for class interaction. Fridays are usually devoted to review.
“Students are continually reviewing as they go along,” Sheehan says. “We have practice questions that correspond to the CISR exam. If the students are learning about personal injury protection and liability, they’ll see the types of questions asked about those topics on the exam.”
There is also plenty of opportunity for agents to get involved. “We’re reaching out to local agencies in school districts that plan to start the program in 2020–21,” Sheehan says. “We absolutely want them to come to career days, speak in the classroom and provide outbound career experiences.” Of course, there is the internship in the fourth semester, which lets students see what an insurance career looks like and explore different pathways.
“Our goal is to produce qualified, highly engaged people who are ready to jump into the industry with both feet,” Sheehan says. “For the agencies that provide internships and hire them, they’re getting someone already trained who has a CISR designation they didn’t have to pay for. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
High degree of interest in Texas and other states
Sheehan says there has been interest in the program all across Texas. “From El Paso to Texarkana, from Edinburgh to Amarillo, districts of all sizes see the opportunity. Because insurance is everywhere, any type of school—urban, suburban, rural—can benefit.”
The program also meets national College, Career and Military Readiness standards, known as CCMR. That means schools are eligible to get additional funding if they offer the course. Schools have been attracted to the program because they see that it can deliver on its promise to place students after they finish.
“We have a database full of agency employees who have earned their CISR designation who are looking for young adults with insurance knowledge to bring into the industry,” Cook says. “It’s a match made in heaven for the schools and for local independent insurance agencies.”
Dr. Hold says The National Alliance has had inquiries about the program from seven or eight states. “Alabama is giving a special grant to one high school to do the complete program as a pilot,” he says. “When you have a school that is interested and can get state funding, you know you have a chance of being successful.”
While the coronavirus slowed down The National Alliance’s efforts to sign up new school districts this spring, Sheehan says she’s confident that at least a dozen schools will be starting the program in the fall. “Right now, our goal is to have an enormously successful first year in Texas,” she explains. “We know there is an opportunity nationwide, but we want to make sure we get it right before we expand.”
With estimates that the insurance industry faces a labor shortfall of hundreds of thousands of jobs, the high school CISR program is a bright spot on the employment horizon. “To go right into a career where you have a future that is better than 90% of anything else you might choose, that’s huge,” says The National Alliance CEO Hold. “At the same time, these students will be prepared to pursue a college degree in insurance or risk management, if that’s what they ultimately decide to do.”
Adds Cook, “We know the sky’s the limit if you apply yourself in this industry and that young adults can make a great living in insurance. We just need to engage these students and show them there are boundless opportunities.”
Mitch Dunford is chief marketing and content officer at The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research. He is the former CEO of Wells Media Group, Inc., publishers of Insurance Journal, MyNewMarkets.com, Claims Journal and Carrier Management. For more information about the National Alliance CISR High School Program, visit co.scic.com/cisr-for-hs/