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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



April 27
09:47 2020


Invest celebrates 50 years of insurance education and launches an agent apprenticeship program

By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU

For some of us, it’s hard to believe that 1970 was 50 years ago. That year the average U.S. annual income was $9,400 … the average cost of a new house was $23,450 … a gallon of gas cost 36 cents … a postage stamp cost 6 cents … and you could buy a shiny new green AMC Gremlin for $1,879.

The year 1970 also saw the formation of Project InVEST, an initiative that was designed to promote insurance education as a way to attract young people to pursue a career in the industry. Each year the program prepares thousands of students for insurance-related careers with a hands-on curriculum taught in high schools, colleges, and adult education centers.

This year, the program is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new brand identity—InvestSM—a new strategic direction, and a new agent apprenticeship program. Invest, which is affiliated with the Big “I,” historic-ally had focused on educating and attracting young people to the industry in general, whereas its emphasis now is on preparing students for careers with independent agencies. Approved last year by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the apprenticeship program will help independent agencies understand how to onboard, train, and mentor Invest graduates.

“Project InVEST was launched at Hollywood High School by the Independent Insurance Agents of Los Angeles,” says Deborah Pickford, executive director of Invest. “The initial focus was on consumer education, talking to students about how to become smart insurance consumers.

“Over the years we have really morphed,” she continues. “We are now in 47 states, and we have 31,500 students studying parts or all of our curriculum. Since 1970 we have broadly expanded, and we have also evolved in a number of ways.

“It became clear to us that if we don’t grow the distribution system,we won’t be able to help insurers grow their bottom lines.”

—Deborah Pickford
Executive Director

“Up until about 2000 we used textbooks, and since that time we have shifted to an online platform,” Pickford explains. “All of our resources are now online: our 12-chapter curriculum, lesson plans for teachers, quizzes, and more. Occasionally we ship textbooks to a school that doesn’t have online capability. The Institutes® generously print and ship our textbooks. Every-thing we offer is free for schools, teachers, and students.”

Workforce development

Until the coronavirus pandemic struck, unemployment in the United States was at its lowest level in decades. With the resulting labor shortage and the wave of older Baby Boomers who were retiring, insurance organizations were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit, train, and retain quality employees.

At Invest, Pickford says, “We’ve really started to sharpen our focus on workforce development. Many of our students go on to earn four-year degrees, but what about the kids who attend community college or move directly into jobs after graduating from high school? We wanted to explore that sector and figure out how to build that talent pipeline.

“A key part of our initiative is reaching out to students and telling them about all the exciting opportunities in our industry, especially those that are related to technology,” Pickford says. “We also talk to young people about the entrepreneurial opportunities in agency ownership. I think a common misconception is that an insurance job is sitting at a desk making phone calls to sell life insurance policies. There’s so much more breadth and depth in insurance careers today.”

Invest is a 501(c)(3) educational trust that is supported largely by insurance carriers, and for most of its existence the organization has focused on preparing students for careers with insurers. In strategic planning sessions that began in 2018, Invest board members talked about what direction the organization would take going forward.

“Through that process, it became clear to us that if we don’t grow the distribution system, we won’t be able to help insurers grow their bottom lines,” Pickford explains. “We were concerned that our corporate partners might not like the idea, but when we reached out to them the response was overwhelmingly positive, with carriers saying: ‘We should absolutely be supporting the independent agency system; it’s how we grow.’

“This new focus doesn’t mean we no longer prepare students to obtain posit-ions with insurers, vendors, consulting firms, or other organizations,” Pickford notes. “We continue to mount a robust effort to support students who want to pursue one of those tracks.”

Agent apprenticeship

“Ever since I walked in the door at Invest four years ago, I’ve been thinking about an apprenticeship program,” Pickford says. “Apprenticeship has long been a tradition in blue-collar trades like plumbing, electrical work, and heating and air conditioning. In line with our workforce development initiative, I started thinking about how we could interest young people in joining independent agencies. How could we help the independent agent hire and retain qualified employees? I noticed that several large insurers like Aon, The Hartford, and Zurich were starting apprentice-ship programs. I thought that might be a win-win for independent agents and our students,” she says.

With input from many sources, and with the support of the U.S. Department of Labor, “which moved amazingly fast,” Pickford notes, “we developed national guidelines for an apprenticeship program. In discussions with the DOL, we worked through issues like what are the standards for an apprenticeship, how many hours should be devoted to education and to working, what we want people to know and learn, how we should pay them—all the considerations involved in building an apprenticeship program.

“[Invest] was an outstanding experience. We not only learned about insurance from the consumer perspective, but we also got career exposure from our guest speakers and field trips to insurance organizations.”

—Lindsey Shank
Operations Manager
Hull & Company, Inc.

“Last November the DOL approved national apprenticeship guideline standards for the Invest program, and I’m now working with state agent associations, insurers, and agents to create sponsorship entities and encourage local agents to hire the apprentices, while at the same time paving the ground for more Invest programming in high schools.” In the “earn while you learn” apprenticeship program, students work part time in agencies while studying for a General Insurance Certificate.

“In Maryland we’ve made excellent progress,” Pickford remarks. “We’ve been on an Invest/University of Baltimore/state insurance commissioner road show, visiting high schools to talk to teachers and administrators about the Invest program, the apprenticeship program, and whether students would be interested in studying risk management at the University of Baltimore. The university launched a new risk management program last fall.

“We’re working on setting up a sponsorship entity in the state,” she continues. “The sponsor would track the apprentices, make sure they’re getting the training they need and logging their hours, and ensure that the program is adhering to the DOL apprenticeship guidelines.”

Pickford’s team also is working in New York, Texas, and Washington State to set up sponsorship entities for the apprenticeship program and expects to move into additional states as interest in the program grows.

One student’s experience

Currently serving as chair of the national Invest board is Lindsey Shank, herself an Invest graduate and former chair of the Invest Task Force. Shank is operations manager at Hull & Company, Inc., in St. Petersburg, Florida; she previously held similar positions with independent agencies in the St. Pete area.

“It’s hard to believe that it was almost 21 years ago that I was in high school and took an Invest class,” Shank recalls. “The Invest program was offered in the school’s business department, and the instructor taught the class for a full semester. I really liked the flexibility of the program and the way it could be tailored to fit the needs of the student, the teacher, and the school. Every day from January through May, we went to our Invest class and studied the insurance curriculum.”

Going into the class, Shank says, “I really had no idea what to expect. I was like most 16-year-old students; when I thought about insurance, I pictured someone sitting at a desk making calls or going door to door trying to sell insurance. Our class gave us an exciting opportunity to learn insurance principles and also to learn about insurance from a consumer standpoint,” she says.

“During the three months of our class, guest speakers taught us about different aspects of personal insurance, with a focus on auto insurance,” Shank explains. “The teacher supplemented this instruction with textbook assignments, case studies, videos, and other projects. This format gave us an excel-lent blend of the real life perspective of insurance professionals with textbook-based study.”

After completing the three-month curriculum, Shank says, “We were able to put our learning into action. We created mock insurance agencies in the classroom so we could apply what we’d learned in a realistic setting. We applied for different agency jobs, and we sold mock auto insurance policies to our peers, teachers, and parents. Our mock agencies competed with each other, and at the end we had prizes and awards for the winning agencies. We also had a portfolio of what we’d learned from that hands-on exercise, plus what we’d learned in our three months of classroom study.”

All in all, “It was an outstanding experience,” Shank says. “We not only learned about insurance from the consumer perspective, but we also got career exposure from our guest speakers and field trips to insurance organizations. We were able to use our creativity in setting up the mock agencies and devising ways for them to compete. We all came out of the class knowing a lot more about insurance than we did going in.”

Dryden High School Invest students man the organization’s booth during Dryden Mutual Insurance Company Career Day.

Off to work

Right before graduation, Shank asked her business teacher if he knew of any agencies that needed help for the summer. “I reached out to Claire Shonter of Iler Wall & Shonter (now McGriff Insurance); she had done a mock interview with me in the classroom, and she said her agency could put me to work right away.”

Much of Shank’s work at the agency was administrative oriented. “I did a lot of filing and copying; I worked in the mailroom and answered the phone—all of the behind-the-scenes things that keep an agency running,” she explains. “My original intent was to work for the agency just for the three months of the summer, but toward the end of that time Claire asked me if I’d like to continue working part time while I attended college. I was really excited about that opportunity and worked for the agency for the four years that I went to the University of South Florida’s College of Business Administration. The agency management was flexible in accommodating my class schedule. During that time I continued to do administrative work. I also started working with a manager who was the agency’s liaison with the companies we represented, again performing administrative duties.”

Upon graduating with a degree in finance, Shank says, she accepted the agency’s offer of a full-time position. At that time, she recounts, she began to learn more about the management aspect of the agency. “Claire was getting ready to retire, and I started shadowing her in her office manager role. After she retired I was named assistant agency manager and then operations manager.”

In January of this year, after almost 21 years with the agency, Shank moved to the wholesale side and joined Hull & Company as operations manager. “I was ready for a change and a challenge, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to learn about a different side of the business,” she says.

Giving back

Shank is grateful to the Invest pro-gram for launching her on a career path that she otherwise might not have pursued and that has proved to be rewarding as well as challenging. Eager to help today’s students explore the same path, she became active in an initiative to bring Invest to a local high school.

“My school had discontinued the program after our business teacher retired and no one was willing to take on the responsibility for running the program,” she says. “Some of my fellow alumnae started a little Invest committee to look for another high school that might be interested. We found a school that was doing an insurance class on their own, and they were excited about having their students participate in the Invest program. It’s turned out to be a wonderful partnership. The program has really taken off, and it’s been going on for about five years. I’ve been very involved with this initiative from the beginning.”

Giving back, after all, is what the Invest program is really all about. For three generations it has educated and encouraged students to embrace the opportunities available to them with retail agencies and brokerages, wholesale facilities, insurers, and related entities. The new apprentice-ship program is at the heart of Invest’s unwavering commitment to ensuring a vigorous independent agency system and its recognition that “We’re all in this together.”

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