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A Career in Insurance

Employment for life

By John Edwards

Any recent grad looking for an IT job with security could do a whole lot worse than targeting the insurance industry, says Brian Gabrielson, a vice president at Robert Half Technology, the IT branch of Robert Half International, a staffing company headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. Unlike many high-tech companies, which offer plenty of glamour but precious little job security, insurance companies provide a great deal of continuity and stability. "Everybody needs insurance," Gabrielson says. "Look at some of the big names and how long they've been around-it's a very stable industry."

Like other major businesses, insurance companies need a wide range of IT workers. Database experts, application developers, systems analysts, network designers, Web developers and help desk agents are just a few of the specialists companies seek. "You have a stable, yet growing industry," Gabrielson says. "To the job applicant, that means opportunity."

Getting Started

Gabrielson suggests that grads looking for an insurance company IT job use every resource available to hook up with a prospective employer. Family members, friends, school advisors, employment counselors, job services, Web sites-even local insurance agents who may be able to recommend you to the home office. "Your first 'real' job will be the toughest one to find," Gabrielson says, "but you'll also find that it gets much easier down the road as you build experience."

Industry experience isn't necessary, but can be useful when seeking an IT job with an insurance company, says Anne Petruff, IT services vice president for Plymouth Rock, an insurance group headquartered in Boston. "When seeking a project manager or senior developer, we always request that the individual has some insurance experience," she says. "At lower levels, it's not as important."

Insurance companies, being conservative firms, tend to reward employees who exhibit both competence and loyalty, Gabrielson says. "It's a field where you can start at the help desk and work your way up to department manager and beyond."

New Options

When planning an insurance industry IT career, job seekers shouldn't limit themselves only to venerable mainstream insurers. Over the past few years, emerging technologies and evolving business practices have encouraged the formation of startups that target niche insurance markets. Many of these firms are looking for young and aggressive IT employees. "We're where the insurance industry meets Web commerce," says Matt Outten, chief information officer at Squaremouth, an insurance startup located in St. Pete Beach, Fla. Squaremouth, founded in 2001, offers travel insurance to international globetrotters.

Outten notes that a niche insurance company is more like a high-tech startup than a traditional insurance company. "We have all of the issues, changes and excitement that goes along with being a startup and a dot-com," he says. Unlike old-line insurance firms, startups tend to be informal and freewheeling. "We're not tied down by committee meetings and lengthy approval procedures," says Outten. "We usually move quickly and boldly-the bigger you go, the more structured it is."

On the Job

Joe Higgins, who graduated from Villanova University in 2005 with a B.S. in computer science, joined Plymouth Rock's IT group shortly before graduation. He says that the company has given him the opportunity to try his hand at a number of IT specialties. Higgins started out at the company working on the help desk, answering phone calls, writing job tickets and sending them to the appropriate IT teams. He later moved to desktop support, troubleshooting problems, setting up PCs and helping office staffers use their computers more efficiently and productively.

Today, Higgins works in Web site content management, performing updates and enhancements to the online information the insurer provides to its customers and prospective customers. He also performs software configuration management tasks, work that takes him deep inside the company's daily operations. Higgins says managing end user applications has given him a taste for the business side of the insurance industry. "I'm actually now going to school for my MBA," he says.

Higgins notes that he didn't set out to create a career at an insurance company, things just sort of worked out that way.

"I came into it knowing that I wanted to do something that involved the marriage of business and technology," he says. "As it turned out, an insurance company is a business that relies heavily on technology."

Plymouth Rock and its IT operation aren't reluctant to embrace powerful and sophisticated technologies, Higgins says. "As far as languages go, a lot of our front-end application development efforts are in Java, ASP and XML," he notes. "There are a lot of different areas that technology covers, and being here has allowed me to gain experience in those areas."

Higgins figures he's in the insurance field for the long haul. "There's a strong need for technology in the insurance industry," he says. "There's a lot of demand for infrastructure work, networking, application development and project management," he adds. "You're not going be working with artificial intelligence or other groundbreaking or creative technologies, but it's a solid field with plenty of opportunities."

Higgins certainly isn't the only grad who has found himself drawn into the insurance world. Most IT people who start their careers at insurance firms tend to remain within the industry, says Petruff. "You become familiar with the business and you get to understand the issues, so you bring more value to the table as you head up the ladder," she says. Outten agrees. "Once you've become an expert, and you're familiar with the insurance market, you should be able to find employment for life."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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