Terrorism and global warming have made insurance a much sexier profession

Terrorism, kidnappings, global warming, international art smuggling: the job of the insurance salesman is a lot more exciting (and dangerous) than in the days of Willy Loman. Today's underwriters and actuaries are as accustomed to insuring against the risk of flash floods or suicide bombings as they are against fire and theft.

With a workforce numbering some 330,000, the UK's insurance industry is the biggest in Europe and the third largest in the world, comprising one in three of all those employed in the finance sector. Most starting salaries are modest, but training as a loss adjuster or an actuary can prove highly rewarding over time, with top executives such as Neil Utley, the CEO of Equity Insurance Group, and Peter Cullum, the chairman of Towergate Partnership, pocketing millions each year.

However, Britain's leading insurance companies are battling to plug a growing skills gap caused by a brain drain of retiring senior managers. Buffeted by high-profile scandals, public backlashes over deceptive policy terms and rising premiums, and the widespread perception of insurance as a poor relation of more lucrative professions such as merchant banking, insurance firms are struggling to recruit.

But now the industry is fighting back. This month, its main professional body, the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), will hold Britain's first insurance-only careers fair at the University of Manchester, in an effort to promote the range of career options available. This comes as the likes of Royal & SunAlliance and Lloyd's insurance market launch new graduate programmes, and the CII celebrates the first birthday of its recruitment scheme, the CII Talent Initiative.

Elliot Lane, the director of the initiative, aims to challenge the view of insurance as a cold-hearted industry obsessed with bottom lines and balance sheets, and assure potential candidates that it offers strong progression opportunities and good financial rewards.

"Insurance isn't just about data-processing or sitting in call-centres selling policies and processing claims," he says. "You could be dealing with everything from art theft to kidnap and ransom. When we recruit people into technical jobs like underwriting and actuarial work, we need them to have good basic numeracy, but we're not just after maths, science or business graduates. History graduates, for instance, tend to be good at handling fact-based information, which is crucial.

"If you've got a degree in art history, why not train as an art insurer?" he adds. "You could find you become a leading expert in your field, and you'll get invited to glamorous parties by Christie's. Equally, we're facing growing threats from climate change, as the recent floods showed. But this doesn't just signal a new market from a business point of view: we want to attract eco-aware people who see insurance as a way of making a difference."

One firm that shares this view is Ecclesiastical. Over the past 120 years, the Gloucester-based company, originally founded to protect churches from fire, has become Britain's leading ethical insurance provider. It recently launched a three-year graduate-training scheme, with a dedicated website quoting lyrics from the singer-songwriter Jack Johnson's 2005 hit "Good People". The allusion is intended to emphasise its policy of seeking applicants with strong social values, regardless of background.

"Insurance suffers from a stigma caused by bad publicity about scams and so on," reflects human-resources director Richard Mander. "It's also traditionally been very clubby, male and middle-class. We want to start attracting more women and broaden its diversity," he says.

While the industry is busy cultivating a more touchy-feely image, it still has much to offer those whose primary concern is earning big bucks. Starting packages for graduates are modest, with Ecclesiastical paying trainee underwriters (the risk-assessors employed to decide whether to insure us) £23,000, Allianz Insurance £25,000 and Royal & SunAlliance £26,000. But the wage tends to only be part of a package, with most firms adding bonuses, generous pensions and excellent promotion prospects from the outset.

Geoff Barr, who started as a "humble motor-claims handler" on £10 a week in 1971, is now special- and large-claims director for Royal & SunAlliance, earning a substantial salary and running a team of 300. Barr has seen everything from the 7 July bombings to the Cutty Sark fire pass through his in-tray. "Insurance is more interesting than people think," he says. "The rewards it offers are comparable to other areas of the finance sector."

For more information, visit the CII's website at www.cii.co.uk, or the Association of British Insurers at www.abi.org.uk. Ecclesiastical's graduate site is at www.ecclesiastical.com/graduates. For Royal & SunAlliance careers information, visit www.royalsunalliance.com/royalsun/careers; for Allianz Insurance opportunities, visit www.allianz.co.uk/ careers/index.htm; and for the Lloyd's insurance market scheme, go to www.graduatesatlloyds.com.