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My job explained: Commercial underwriter

Working in insurance, Matthew Flynn needs to work out which risks are worth taking. Read on to find out more.

Could you tell us a bit about your job?
My job is to assess the risk of giving insurance to companies based on their trade and business activities, as well as the customer’s claims history. I decide if they would be a worthwhile client to hold insurance for, and if so, at what cost. 

To do this we work off rates that have been set by looking at how much a trade has cost insurance companies in the past. For example, an average office for an estate agent is much less likely to burn down than a fireworks factory would be, and historically, claims experiences have reflected this. We therefore don’t charge an office as much for insurance as we would a fireworks factory.

As there are so many aspects of commercial insurance, including buildings, motor insurance, employers’ liability and public liability, it can be quite a complex job assessing fully the risk to an insurance company. To help us with this job, most commercial insurance is transacted through a broker. 

The broker deals solely with the client and provides us with a document showing us in detail what their client does, and what insurance they need. We can work with this to get the broker a price to go back to the customer with. 

Because we repeatedly deal with the same brokers, rather than hundreds of customers, we are able to build up good relationships with them, so there is a strong sales aspect to the job, and you definitely need to be able to get on with people, and be good on the phone.
Why did you choose to go into insurance?
Traditionally the insurance market has stayed fairly buoyant. There are legal requirements for insurance, and everyone at some point in their lives needs it. In an age of uncertainty I felt that insurance offered a relatively secure job, although unfortunately no sector is exempt from tough times and redundancies. I also liked how social insurance can be. The markets we work in cover a lot of premium, but are governed by fairly few people. This means that you can get to know quite a lot of people very quickly, and don’t just have to speak to the same people in your office day in and day out.
How did you get to where you are now?
I started working for Aviva in a call centre taking up to 50 calls a day underwriting personal car insurance. Although we did some interesting cars it was fairly repetitive, and I liked the idea that commercial insurance was more varied. I moved to RSA to be an assistant underwriter, and trained to be an underwriter. I took external exams with the Chartered Institute of Insurance, and took every opportunity within the company that I could. There are a varied range of opportunities in this role. There are more technical roles, more specialist roles, more sales type roles, or more behind the scenes roles, so it can give access to a number of options for the future.
What’s a typical working day like?
Typically the day is made up of underwriting new business quotes. This is done through computer systems and spreadsheets and the odd sum on a calculator. We then speak with the broker to make sure that we are covering everything that they have asked for, and trying to confirm the business to us. There are also other admin tasks. Some of these have legal implications, and some of these are for good order internally. We also do a fair amount of training, and gather people’s opinions on cases that they’re working on. We also try to see our brokers as much as possible, so there is time away from the office speaking to people face to face.
What qualifications and training do you have?
I have 11 GCSEs and three A-Levels. I didn’t go to university for personal reasons, although I am aware that a lot of insurers do offer graduate schemes. I also now hold insurance-specific qualifications.
What other skills do you need?
Although you do need to be fairly analytical, and also organized and accurate, there is a lot that you can do to help if you struggle in these areas. I’m amazingly unorganized, so I make my own online to do lists to be accessed from anywhere, and I create crib sheets to work through to make sure I don’t forget anything. Most important is an ability to build rapport with people fairly quickly. If you can break down a few barriers and get talking to people, it goes a long way.
What’s the best thing about your job?
There is quite a big sense of responsibility as you get more authority within the role. You could make a mistake and the company ends up having to pay out a £10 million claim, so the trust that is put into you can be fairly rewarding. 
Was it difficult getting your first job?
Not incredibly. There was a phone interview followed by a face-to-face interview. Insurers tend to do rounds of recruitment for entry level roles (where they employ 10 to 20 at a time), so you do need some luck as to the time of year you apply. For anything above entry level you need experience within the industry.
What advice would you have for anyone who wants to get into insurance?
The industry is still fairly old school so expect to wear a suit and have a fairly good manner about yourself when speaking to people. If you have any administration background at all it would definitely help. For entry level jobs apply direct to insurers. Most have online vacancy websites of their own. 
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