Roger Evans looks at a novel outsource option for developing new talent in the insurance sector.

Late last summer, a new outsource business launched itself on an unassuming insurance industry. The brains behind A Sure Talent had seen the constant demand for graduate trainees, but the cost in time and resources to run graduate schemes meant they had ceased to become a budget priority. Thus came the idea of an outsourced graduate scheme.

"I won't deny that it wasn't difficult at first," admitted UK manager Rebecca Lewis. "No one had heard of A Sure Talent and outsourcing in this way is a new concept for the insurance sector." A Sure Talent is a direct response to a gap in the market. Insurance is an industry where people need to react quickly to difficult situations, and addressing a labour or skills shortage is a fundamental part of that.

New venture
Originally the brainchild of Dutchman Cint Kortmann, A Sure Talent was launched in Amsterdam in 1999. An HR Director at the time, Kortmann was struggling with a skills shortage in his own firm, and he noticed that other employers wanted a similar thing: a graduate with at least two years' insurance experience. The firms that offered graduate trainee schemes found their talent being lured by other companies and their original investment wasted. Market demand was far greater than supply, and poaching looked set to become an industry standard.

With additional market research, Kortmann established a further industry requirement: young, quality personnel available for short-term temporary, contract or interim projects. Temp agencies lacked the talent pool and management consultancies were too expensive for such needs. Banking on market needs and the proliferation of an outsourcing culture in the Netherlands, A Sure Talent was born.

In many ways, A Sure Talent's greatest asset is its simplicity. Graduates are offered a two-year fixed-term contract which puts them on a professional qualification fast-track, on-the-job development of their `soft skills' (presentations, client handling, leadership, project management), and the honing of a complementary skill set concentrating most notably on IT abilities and industry know-how. In addition, graduates undertake at least four different placements during their contract.

"We are servicing the insurance industry on a national basis, not just the London market," explained Ms Lewis. "Graduates will experience different cities and regions alongside the diverse cultures of companies they work in." HR developments have been incorporated into the programme's main tenets: all participants benefit from a six-weekly career coaching session. "We all need to flag things up, even get things off our chest at times," she continued. "And additional attention may be needed on occasions." Offering pastoral assistance, such as help in finding accommodation, is part of the ethos.

Market demand
The Finance Director at a reinsurance broker based in London had a lot to say on the issue. His is one of the many reinsurance firms that have taken on A Sure Talent graduates for help with projects in broking, underwriting support and run-off. "There is a great need in the market at the moment for good people available at very short notice," he said. "We have taken on four graduates and they have all been very good: intelligent, quick to learn, and enthusiastic." His division is part of a much larger insurance business which has its own graduate scheme. "The problem is that it's slow," he explained. "When you need something doing, you can't wait for your slot to come up in the programme, and even then you may not get enough in terms of resources." But he is convinced of the merits of an outsource solution like A Sure Talent and has no complaints or problems, save that the only difficulty has been finding work for graduates who are "almost too intelligent". "Often we need very mundane tasks such as data entry to be completed, and there's no way you can sell that as rocket science," he added.

Another difficulty with A Sure Talent is the potential for an identity crisis. Any outsource company has to be either one with a strong identity or one which assimilates consultants into organisations quickly and effectively.

Close-knit operation
Cint Kortmann saw this from the beginning and insisted on establishing a family-style operation which centred around fun and camaraderie. "It is vital you enjoy what you are doing," he explained. "A Sure Talent is a highly-pressurised situation. The graduates have to be good and bright to survive it. We can provide the facilities and all the necessary support but it is ultimately down to the graduates themselves to take the opportunities, to seize the initiative and make the most of the programme." It is an established fact of mentoring that you have to interact with participants face-to-face, and that people are most receptive and relaxed in an informal setting like a social event. "I can think of no other graduate scheme that has this," observed Edward Snell of insurance recruitment consultancy IPS Group, "but A Sure Talent is unique." One of its strengths is its own company culture; it does not have to fit into any larger corporate rubric and its message is entirely its own.