Getting educated: A changing landscape for broker learning

As the head of broker and consultant development at Lincoln Financial Group, Nicole Delimitros is always looking at data gathered from brokerages — a process she calls a “combination of art and science.”

Delimitros uses information gathered from brokerage firms to target areas of opportunity for the insurer based on what benefit advisers are selling in their local markets. From there, her team develops Lincoln Financial Group’s adviser education programs.

Delimitros says the questions brokers have been asked by clients over the last several years are changing — and they have to keep up with the times.

“It’s changed significantly in the last three to five years,” she says. “Now they’re really being brought in and expected to understand all things related to human capital.”

As the role of the adviser evolves, broker education such as Delimitros’ program have been adapting to focus on newer, more consultative topics. Carriers have added onto more traditional courses — for example, underwriting courses and dental plans — and are now providing education on topics including paid family leave, HR technology and financial wellness benefits, industry experts say. Several insurers including Lincoln Financial Group, Prudential and MetLife have beefed up or expanded their training programs over the last several years.

This year Lincoln Financial Group launched a new program, the Broker Development Institute, a two-day educational event held in locations around the U.S. for the firms’ advisers. Sessions are held with 25 to 35 brokers at a time and are meant to inspire discussion about the most pressing industry trends.

See also: Online master’s program schools advisers on benefit strategies

Insurance brokerage M&A activity has continued to rise — the industry reached its highest number of acquisitions in 2018 — and some insiders speculate that brokerages are relying more heavily on carriers to provide training.

Diane Russell, senior vice president of group protection marketing and strategy at Lincoln Financial Group, has seen this trend increase over the last four years. It is more difficult for growing firms to train their employees, which is one reason why they are depending on carriers to fill in the gaps, she adds.

“With the consolidation of the brokerages across the country, finding good people and training them effectively was getting harder for some advisers and brokers,” she says. “I think they were just relying more and more on the carriers. We’re glad to do it. I see it as a good opportunity to share knowledge and information.”

Insurance is set to face even more difficulties finding talent as 400,000 jobs are projected to be unfilled in the industry by 2020, according to data from the industry group Insurance Careers Movement. The industry has been taking steps to recruit millennials, but less than 5% express interest in working in the space.

Carriers move to adapt

Carriers are moving to modify their programs to keep pace with trends in the benefits brokerage space. For example, MetLife has been running its MetLife University training program since 2014 and revisits the curriculum every year, says Anna Lavery, assistant vice president of sales enablement for group benefits at MetLife. The insurer has more than 400 brokers pass through the training program each year, which is held for two days at six locations across the country.

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“We speak to leaders at various firms around where they feel like they have knowledge gaps,” Lavery says.

MetLife University courses range from plan design for life, dental, disability and other core products to newer topics including technology and paid family leave. The insurer also offers a course on discovering the needs of clients through market research, Lavery adds.

In addition, Lavery says the company has seen an increase in the number of brokers inquiring about financial wellness benefits. A full 53% of all employers are interested in having brokers provide guidance on financial wellness strategies — that percentage tops 60% when looking at employers with 100 or more workers, according to the most recent MetLife U.S. employee benefit trend study.

These benefits were initially looked at as product offerings, but now employers and brokers understand the value throughout the entire lifecycle of the worker. It’s no longer just about retirement — student loan repayment and other offerings are emerging on the scene, she adds.

“The whole perspective on work-life [balance], and the balance between wellness from a health perspective and financially is a big focus of what we’ve brought into the Metlife University curriculum,” Lavery says.

Jeanna Cavanaugh, head of marketing strategy at Prudential Group Insurance, also echoes the need for more broker financial wellness education. In 2017, the company conducted a survey of brokers and found that many were falling behind with bringing such offerings to employers. So the financial services company developed a certification program to help brokers learn more about financial wellness benefits, Cavanaugh says. The company piloted the program in 2018 with about 75 advisers.

“People are worried about financial stress in the workplace,” Cavanaugh says. “We’re closing any financial wellness gaps that employees might have at the firm.”

Cavanaugh adds that as brokerages continue to consolidate they are leaning more heavily on Prudential to aid in their education and financial wellness programs. “They do see it as an opportunity that we can help fill any gaps they might have,” she continues.

Financial wellness isn’t the only benefit carriers are keeping an eye on. Lincoln Financial Group’s Russell and MetLife’s Lavery say there are also a significant number of brokers asking for information on the changing landscape of paid family leave. As states update and change their laws, brokers have to keep abreast of what is new. Plus, employers are clamoring for more information.

“Brokers are really looking for insightful information on a regular basis, from a compliance perspective and a legal perspective,” Russell says. Advisers are also more frequently asking about HR and benefit technology, she adds.

See also: Brokers concerned about Washington’s impact on benefits in 2020 election

But it goes beyond just insurance companies. As the benefits landscape changes and brokerages grow, some firms are also rethinking how they approach their own education programs.

Kate Moher, national employee benefits and health practice leader at Marsh & McLennan, says this year the insurance brokerage is launching MMA University, a digital platform that was developed in collaboration with carriers. Marsh & McLennan uses the platform to share both internal trainings and tools developed by insurers.

The plan, she says, is to make educational content available to advisers 24/7. Training varies depending on career stage, she adds, and the brokerage hopes this new program will help them keep up with the demand.

“We have a lot of producers that need touchpoints and trainings at various levels,” Moher says. “Hopefully we’re ahead of the curve.”

As Marsh & McLennan acquires new firms, Moher says they open up training to the new employees. The digital nature of the program makes it easy for new employees to get up to speed quickly.

Lincoln Financial Group’s Delimitros says she anticipates adviser education programs will continue to change over time — both at carriers and brokerages. To remain competitive in the ever-changing space, advisers need to stay up-to-date on the latest benefits trends.

“It will continue to challenge, in a lot of ways, how the training is delivered and what topics are needed and delivered,” she says.

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