Flexible Career

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Practical Education, Flexible Career, Rewarding Life.

Last week, I posted about the practical education element of the Ferris State RMI program’s tagline.  In the continuing spirit of Insurance Careers Month, I will discuss the flexible career aspect this week.  I’d like to begin by highlighting one example of insurance career flexibility: me.

I was one of the many “accidental” insurance professionals who stumbled into a commercial underwriting position fresh out of college.  A few years later, I moved into a risk management role with a large retailer.  Applying my interests and aptitudes for technology, I eventually started my own consulting practice where I worked on several Fortune 500 risk management information system projects.  An opportunity came along to develop a system and process for tracking certificates of insurance, and an entirely new business was born.  Over the course of ten years, I was able to grow and then sell that business, and then pursue the bucket list objective of earning a doctoral degree.  Shortly thereafter, Ferris State revived its RMI academic program and began searching for a lead faculty and program coordinator, and here I am today.

Over the years, I’ve talked to countless risk and insurance professionals, some who intentionally entered the industry and many who discovered it accidentally.  I am always intrigued by the unique stories of these career arcs.  They are always a fascinating story of career evolution that starts in one area of the industry and then twists and turns through a variety of different roles, opportunities, firms, and locations.  Many in the industry have had the chance to live in some wonderful places, including overseas.  Here in Michigan, insurance professionals can work in the metropolitan areas of Detroit and Grand Rapids, or near the exquisite shorelines of Grand Haven and Traverse City, or in the pristine wilderness (and sportsman’s paradise) of the Upper Peninsula.  The key takeaway from my and many other stories is that a risk and insurance career is not stagnant, but rather it allows for evolution through a number of interesting, challenging, and meaningful positions in a variety of locations.

A flexible career has another meaning besides career path mobility and opportunity.  Numerous articles describing the desire for workplace flexibility have appeared in recent years, particularly when discussing the Millennial generation.  However, I believe that this desire for flexibility is not unique to the Millennials.  In this age of instant, always-on communication, I think we all value the ability to work from anywhere we wish, and at the times that we wish.  Technology certainly supports our ability to be productive from our home office or even from the bleacher seats as we watch our children and grandchildren play sports.  The risk and insurance industry offers this type of flexibility.  Many professionals are now based out of home offices.  Field personnel who do loss control or claims work often schedule their own appointments.  I’ve spoken with many insurance agents over the years who treasure the ability to work in the office during the morning, have a client meeting over lunch, spend time on a family activity during the afternoon, and finish up their day with a little work in their home office.  The next day’s schedule may look entirely different – it’s up to them.

Let me be clear.  There is work to be done.  I don’t intend to paint a picture of insurance professionals spending all of their afternoons on the golf course,  During my consulting days, I traveled 50-75% of the time and I was away from my young family more than I cared to be at times.  Nevertheless, the work was always interesting, never boring, and I always had a degree of control over when I scheduled projects.  On the whole, I have enjoyed a tremendous amount of flexibility and variety in my risk and insurance career, and you can too.

 

Practical Education

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February is “Insurance Careers Month” during which risk and insurance professionals make a concerted effort to highlight the industry’s career opportunities for young people facing a myriad of academic and professional choices.  A few years ago, when Ferris State University revived its storied risk management and insurance academic program, we re-engineered the curriculum and co-curricular opportunities for the 21st century.  As the new program took shape, I sat down with an advisory board sub-committee to craft a tagline for the program that would capture its essence and the potential that it offered students:

Ferris State University Risk Management and Insurance:  Practical Education.  Flexible Career.  Rewarding Life.

 In the context of insurance careers month, I decided to break this tagline down and discuss each of its component parts over the next few weeks.

“Practical Education” is not just lip service – it’s part of the Ferris State DNA.  The school was founded in 1884 by Woodbridge and Helen Ferris as Big Rapids Industrial School.  A review of the school’s history clearly demonstrates a focus on teaching practical skills that prepare students for gainful employment and successful careers in fields where workers are needed.  To this day, Ferris offers programs in such fields as Heavy Equipment Technology, Welding Engineering Technology, Plastics Engineering Technology, Pharmacy, Optometry, and yes, Risk Management and Insurance.  All of these are fields clamoring for young, educated talent.  The Ferris State mission and core values clearly emphasize the practical nature of a Ferris State education.

The new Ferris State RMI academic program has been designed from the ground-up to provide this practical education.  Our students learn the foundational concepts of the risk management process, insurance coverages, insurance law, and terminology.  But that’s not all.  The reality is that in many fields, a significant portion of the technical knowledge a person gains in school will be obsolete within ten years of graduation.  The truth is that the technical learning continues well beyond college graduation, and in fact, never really ends.  Insurance coverages will evolve with emerging risks such as cyber-risk, and who knows what comes next in the 2030s, 2040s, and beyond.

At the heart of our practical education is an emphasis on experiential learning, adaptable degree programs, and development of timeless skills.  Practical education means that our students will complete internships where they go to work in the “real world” of risk and insurance.  It means they attend industry conferences where they are exposed to emerging industry issues and begin building a professional network.  It means that they participate in co-curricular activities such as Gamma Iota Sigma.

Practical education means that students complete the foundational RMI courses and then have the opportunity to draw a variety of other courses from across the University to complete their degree and to suit their interests and career direction.  Interested in becoming a cyber-security/cyber-risk expert? Take a few of our information security courses.  Interested in predictive analytics for risk and insurance? Take data analytics and data mining courses.  Interested in the agency side of the business? Take our agency operations course along with a few small business management courses.  Examples of practical tailored education abound.

Practical education means that students learn and practice the skills that every employer seeks.  The RMIN 489 capstone course includes units, exercises, and activities in such areas as critical thinking skills, logic, problem-solving, and collaboration, to name a few.  Just next week, the RMIN 489 students will be addressed by an industry veteran who will be coaching them through several case studies drawn from genuine situations from the realms of underwriting, claims, sales, and risk management.  The cases we use in this course are not canned textbook cases – they are real-world (with names changed to protect the guilty/innocent) situations for which there is rarely “one correct solution.”  The intent is to exercise the students’ problem-solving and analytical skills as they evaluate each case against the foundational risk and insurance knowledge they have gained.

This is real-world stuff.  This is a practical education.

What a Riot

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For most of my adult life, riots were such a rare occurrence that the phrase “what a riot” was a way of saying “that was a lot of fun.”  Over the last few years, and especially the last few weeks, the term “riot” has no connotation of “fun” about it.  Well, at least not to sane people.  I’m sure some of the riot participants think they are having a grand ol’ time as they destroy the property of others and inconvenience people.  In fact, as best I can discern, many of the rioters seem to think they are engaged in a noble and patriotic activity.  Were they remaining peaceful and not destroying property, I would likely agree that their protest is noble.

I could get all political here, but I won’t. Except to say that it is clearly one particular side of the political spectrum causing all of the chaos right now, and it is supposed to be the side that espouses its belief in tolerance, peace, love, and freedom of speech.  Yet, the latest violent riot in Berkeley, California was intended to (and successfully did) prevent controversial libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking.  The violence and hate on display among these rioters was truly ironic – and the rioters themselves seem to be totally blind to the irony.

The relevance of the increasing frequency and intensity of riots to risk management and insurance is clear.  Insurance coverage is typically afforded for “riot and civil commotion” in most homeowners and commercial property insurance policies.  Soft markets notwithstanding, insurance underwriters have to be taking a harder look at locations they are insuring and evaluating the potential for riots.  Major population centers and especially colleges and universities are of particular concern these days when it comes to riot loss exposures.  Risk managers in areas where protests may evolve into violent riots have their hands full right now, and need to be talking with local law enforcement about plans to protect property and personal safety.

Whatever happened to the nobility of peaceful, non-violent protests? We just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day to remember his accomplishments that were brought about through peaceful protests and the open expression of ideas as encapsulated in Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.  The riots, and the rioters are disgraceful, not noble.  And they are costing us all dearly in the form of increasing insurance costs and even more so in the form of dividing us more deeply as a nation.

Incidentally, it’s been awhile since my last blog post.  It was a busy autumn.  That’s my only excuse.  I’ll try to get back to a more regular posting schedule in 2017.  I’m sure there will be plenty of risk and insurance material to cover.  Stay safe and sane out there folks.

Hard Lessons of the Louisiana Floods

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Louisiana, and particularly Baton Rouge, was hit by severe flooding last month.  The photographs of destruction and displaced families are heart-wrenching.  Unfortunately, with the election season ramping up to full throttle, the devastation of Louisiana is already being crowded out of society’s attention.  Ordinarily, I would expect that relief agencies and compassionate individuals ought to have the situation well in hand, and that insurance mechanisms have kicked in to help the flood victims rebuild their lives.  Everything working as it should, the flood damage is sad and inconvenient (to put it mildly), but the situation should be manageable.  Time to move on.  Next crisis, please.

But that’s not the case.  Oh, it is true that many of us have moved on to other things… the circus that is our election season, the arrival of the college and pro football seasons, even the next big storm as tropical storm Hermine makes her way up the U.S. east coast.  But the situation in Louisiana is not under control.  Many people have literally lost everything… their homes and their possessions.  So why hasn’t flood insurance done what it is intended to do by helping these people rebuild their lives?  Because more than half (55%) of the state’s residents living in high-hazard flood zones did not purchase flood insurance.  Even worse, 88% of those living in low-to-moderate hazard zones (which were affected by this particular flood) did not buy flood insurance.  One Baton Rouge resident said, “You think, ‘I’ll never need that, I’ve never seen water come up this high.’”

The best that these uninsured residents can hope for is a FEMA grant with a maximum amount of $33,000, and perhaps a low-interest federal government loan to rebuild.  For many, that just won’t cut it.  By the way, this isn’t just a problem for those who have lost their homes and possessions, it is also a problem for society that faces the prospect of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blighted properties.

This is not a call for a massive government bailout of these unfortunate individuals, nor is it a call for tighter regulations that would make flood insurance mandatory for even the slightest exposure.  My major concern is what is going on in the minds of these property owners that would cause them to act seemingly irrationally by foregoing flood insurance?  With several public service announcements broadcast on behalf of the National Flood Insurance Program to raise awareness of the exposure and the NFIP solution, ignorance does not explain it.  It seems more likely that the sparse flood insurance purchases are a manifestation of the old saying that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”  (no pun intended).  The average cost of flood insurance for Louisiana homeowners is around $700/year and would have covered up to $250,000 on homes and $100,000 on personal property.  That’s not an outrageous expense, to protect the most significant asset that most people own.

So why didn’t more people have flood insurance?  The “it-can’t-happen-to-me” attitude should have been swept away by hurricane Katrina, super-storm Sandy, and many other weather events of recent memory.  I don’t have the answer, and it pains me because I love the power of the insurance industry, its product, and its people to move into disasters such as this and put people’s lives back together.  When the people in need of the help fail to take the minimal steps (relatively speaking) to protect themselves by securing the powerful insurance mechanism for their own benefit, I feel for them and I long to send them back in time so that they might make a better choice.  Unfortunately, they will have to serve as hard lessons to those who still have time to make that better choice, and prepare for disaster by securing the proper insurance.  I only hope that the next victims of flood, fire, windstorm, hail, etc. are watching and learning from the despondence of Baton Rouge.

Back to School

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Next week marks the beginning of a new academic year at Ferris State University, and it is going to be a busy one.  The FSU Risk Management and Insurance program officially launches a re-engineered curriculum this fall.  One of the most important features of the updated curriculum is a 15-credit block wherein students will tailor their education (with academic and professional advice) to suit their interests and aptitudes.  Some students may decide to enhance their RMI degree with an area of emphasis in data analytics by completing coursework in data mining, statistics, and predictive analytics.  Other students may focus on risk management by adding coursework in advanced risk management, enterprise risk management, and risk management technologies.  These are but two examples of potential specializations which might also include other areas such as cyber-risk, entrepreneurship, agency operations, and more.  Fun stuff!

Earlier this year, the Ferris State RMI program launched a strategic planning process.  The bulk of the committee’s planning work is now complete.  Execution of the strategic plan is already underway, and will be an ongoing process over the next few years.  This will result in considerable activity both inside and outside of the academic classroom, adding to our students’ success and strengthening the program for future students.

On a personal note, I am beginning my fourth year in academia this fall.  After spending the first 25 years of my career working in and around the risk and insurance industry in a variety of roles, I can honestly say that the past three years have been the most intrinsically rewarding years of my career.  But what really excites me is what I see ahead.  Ferris State has established a fantastic foundation for the RMI program, the risk and insurance industry is eager to hire ambitious graduates, and now we just need to fill more of the seats.  It is going to be a busy and exhilarating year.  Let’s get started.

Davy Jones’ Locker

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Meet Mr. Dave Jones, California’s elected insurance commissioner.  “Elected” is important in that opening sentence because that inherently makes the regulation of insurance in California a political activity.  As is typical in current California electoral politics, Mr. Jones is from the left side of the political spectrum, and seems particularly sympathetic to the green lobby.  Witness his concern over insurance company investment portfolios that dare to include any companies that derive 30% or more of their revenues from fossil fuels.

Mr. Jones has made waves in recent months by asking that insurers doing business in California provide an annual accounting of their fossil fuel investments. Although he has graciously stated that divestiture in such assets is voluntary, he warned that insurers who do not divest themselves of fossil fuel firms will be publicly identified and subject to examinations due to the concern that such assets might damage the insurer’s financial health.  Giving Mr. Jones the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that he is simply reading the not-so-subtle tea leaves of political statements such as Hillary Clinton’s admonition that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”  If that political ambition has a genuine chance of being realized, then yes, there is a concern that such investments on an insurer’s balance sheet could impede their long-term claim-paying ability.  But this smacks of a chicken-and-egg conundrum… is Mr. Jones acting as a prudent regulator of insurance companies, or is he currying political favor with his fellow leftists to propel his own political ambitions and to eventually lead to the realization of a crumbling fossil fuel industry?

The cynic in me leans toward the latter.  There is another effect of this action that concerns me.  California does tend to be out in front of (and often alone) the rest of the country on many left-leaning political initiatives.  Many of the insurers doing business in California also do business in other states.  If the California Insurance Commissioner takes it upon himself to manage the individual investments in an insurer’s portfolio to advance a political agenda that is not directly related to the business of insurance, is that not usurping authority from the other 49 insurance commissioners?  What’s a national or regional insurer to do if all 50 state insurance commissioners begin picking favored and dis-favored industries for their regulated insurers to hold in their investment portfolios?  Couldn’t the Michigan insurance commissioner take a similar approach toward Silicon Valley tech companies since there has been talk of another tech bubble inflating?

We all like to assume that our elected public officials truly have the best interests of their constituents at heart when they exercise the authority of their office.  Unfortunately, I think we’ve witnessed increasing evidence that many such actions taken in the last 10-20 years have been politically motivated and self-serving.  My instinct tells me that this is the case here with California’s chief insurance regulator using his authority to sink fossil fuel investments deep into Davy Jones’ Locker – not for the good of insurance companies or customers, but for the advancement of his own political agenda and ambitions.

Brexit Surprise

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Besides being a fun word to say, “Brexit” has suddenly become a historical term that will now appear in history books for years to come.  Not more than 24 hours ago, as the votes were being cast in the United Kingdom, the clever term seemed to be headed for the dustbin of over-hyped media-coined phrases.  The conventional wisdom was that the UK would remain part of the European Union, and “Brexit” would be forgotten much like “Grexit” was cast aside last year.  The U.S. stock market certainly priced that expectation into the 230-point Dow Jones Industrial Average rise on June 23.  The surprising victory for the “leave the EU” faction caused worldwide financial markets some whiplash, with the Dow falling 610 points on June 24.  And just like that… Bam! The “Brexit” star is born.

Financial markets abhor uncertainty, and the now imminent departure of the UK from the EU will not be quite so imminent as there is a two-year process ahead for negotiating the terms of disentangling the UK from the EU.  That means two years of uncertainty, and probably a few more surprises and unintended consequences.  Welcome to the Brexit-induced damper on all things financial and two-year Chinese water torture of volatility.  The Federal Reserve, along with the rest of the world’s central bankers are going to be doing an awful lot of re-thinking in the months ahead.  I could be wrong (as I was about the Brexit-outcome) but I wouldn’t count on seeing anything that resembles a “normal” interest rate environment in the next two years.  Heck, we might not even see another 25 basis point increase in U.S. interest rates for that long.

There are so many Brexit-related things to think about… there are many political implications and backstories, but at the heart of the Brexit-surprise seems to be a nationalistic fervor that sovereignty still matters.  That could have parallels here on this side of the pond in November’s presidential election.  Channeling Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Now, what about the effects on risk management and insurance?  [I know, I know, you wondered where I was going with this Brexit rambling.]  Well there’s great speculation today about the future of London as an international insurance hub.  Not that it will cease to be an insurance hub, but more about what frictions and complications may be introduced by the need to re-structure firms, obtain new licensing, and yes, perhaps re-locating some resources, once the UK is no longer a part of the EU’s shared economic and regulatory framework.  Will Brexit impede London insurance firms’ access to the EU markets?  What about EU insurance firms serving the UK market?  All fair questions, and all will need to be sorted out over the next few years.  I realize it’s not the same, but I think it might be useful to think of Brexit in terms of the potential economic considerations that would arise if Michigan were to suddenly secede from the United States (Miexit?) and left us all to figure out how to transact business with Indiana and Ohio.  It could kill the export market for Mackinac Island fudge!  Oh the inhumanity that could be wrought.

More broadly, put your risk management hat on and think about the enterprise risk management dimensions of Brexit.  Isn’t this one of those unique sorts of risks that ERM was intended to address?  The political and economic risks associated with Brexit clearly fall into the strategic risk quadrant that traditional risk management relegated to the C-Suite, but ERM’s Chief Risk Officers are supposed to be ready for such vast strategic risks.  So how are CRO’s with operations in the UK and/or the EU reacting today – particularly since most of the world was shrugging off Brexit as a soon-to-be non-event just yesterday?

Add Brexit to your list of worries, concerns, and market volatility triggers to monitor for the next few years.  Oh, and one more piece of advice.  Don’t check your 401(k) balance today.  In fact, it’s probably best you just keep that long-term investor perspective and leave those statements unopened until, say, 2020.