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Let's Crush the Underwriting Talent Crunch!

Property Perspectives by XL Catlin

Personal Perspectives on Commercial Property Insurance


Commercial property underwriting is far from boring, according to XL Catlin’s Jeff Williams.  As Regional Underwriting Director, North Central for XL Catlin’s North America Property insurance business, Jeff has seen a lot, and done a lot, during his 30-plus years of underwriting commercial property insurance.  The devastation of 9/11.  The ripple effects that events around the world pose to businesses here in the US.  And more recently, many businesses’ recovery through a very active hurricane season.  

Jeff has seen clients’ property risk management concerns change during his three-decade career too.  While fire safety and natural catastrophe protection is still a big part of keeping facilities standing and operational, concerns about cyber, terrorism and active assailant risks have become a bigger part of the conversation.  As clients’ businesses have grown over the years, he has also become adept at helping them obtain local insurance coverage around the world, enlisting the help of XL Catlin’s global network.  

That’s how Jeff knows firsthand how interesting, and dynamic, a career in commercial property underwriting can be.  He hopes others see the career potential too, and quick. 

There’s a real hole in commercial property underwriting talent that poses an industrywide risk, according to Jeff, and it’s something the industry has to address, and soon.  Here’s more of Jeff’s perspective on the talent crunch.   

Where is the talent gap in commercial property underwriting? 

Williams While many insurers are focused on bringing in new talent, there is a gap in talent, especially among 30-to-45 year old range. 

The vast majority of large commercial property risk underwriters, like me, started in an insurance training program.  Specifically, I started with IRI (Industrial Risk Insurers) right after graduating The Ohio State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. After the training, I became a loss prevention engineer, helping IRI underwriters evaluate and minimize the risks on site at our clients’ facilities.  I eventually moved into an underwriting career with IRI, then Royal & Sun Alliance before joining XL Catlin in 2003.

At the time, many insurers invested in underwriting training programs like IRIs that swooped young graduates into the industry.  That’s what fed the industry talent pool.  Those programs went to the wayside until the industry realized that our talent pool was getting shallow. 

What does that mean for the commercial property insurance market? 

Williams:  Right now, the whole industry is fighting over the limited talent that we have.  Fortunately, there has been a big push in developing new talent.  Unfortunately, we won’t be able to fill the talent gap by just recruiting middle managers with limited commercial underwriting expertise. 

So what this gap in experiences means is that we have to either hang on to our seasoned underwriters in my age group as long as possible, find ways that we can harness new talent from other industries, and bring our newest colleagues up to speed by transferring the knowledge we’ve accumulated and mentoring them in their development.  As many experienced underwriters move closer to retirement, there are questions as to whether if remaining colleagues will have the skills necessary to take over. We have to address those questions head on and make sure they are. 

Why is this so important to you? 

Williams:  What’s great about this insurance market – especially the market for insuring complex property risks that I’ve worked in – is that it elicits long term relationships. I have had the pleasure of developing strong working relationships with clients that go back decades.  I certainly want to make sure those relationships continue.  When I am ready to retire – and that’s no time soon – I want to make sure my clients are in good hands.  Frankly, I don’t know anyone in the commercial property insurance space that feels differently. 




We all have to play an active role by transferring the knowledge that we’ve accumulated through our careers."


How do you, and XL Catlin’s Property team, intend to do that?  To assure that the next class of commercial property underwriting talent is ready to run when you are ready to pass the baton?

Williams:   We all have to play an active role by transferring the knowledge that we’ve accumulated through our careers.  A textbook education won’t be able to teach the next generation of underwriters the lessons learned from the hands-on experience of the last generation of major loss events.  And this is happening in a lot of industries.  We’re all grappling with how to transfer knowledge to the next generation of workers.  If the seasoned underwriters like me, can take a vested interest in future talent pool and transfer some of it through mentorships, we can have a big impact.

What have you been doing to help?

Williams:  For one, we’ve hired a lot more entry level positions, and in the Chicago office where I am based, I have recently seen five new hires move into underwriting roles, two of which on our property team.  I have personally have taken an interest in their career development and am excited they have moved up into underwriting.  Their backgrounds and college educations have all been different . . . engineering, liberal arts, etc. That diversity in the industry is important too.  It brings different perspectives – all kinds of intuition – that is important in effective risk analysis.    

We have good talent in other areas in XL Catlin – including colleagues on our Middle Office and Property Risk Engineering teams – that have a lot of base underwriting knowledge.  And if they are interested in taking an alternative career path with a lot of upward mobility potential, we’re eager to develop their underwriting skills.    

I’m particularly excited that these colleagues are also getting guidance from XL Catlin’s Underwriting Career Framework.  The Framework provides colleagues with clear paths that they can progress in their career by understanding what is required to be successful in each underwriting role and showing what they need to do to gain additional skills and experience to move to new positions.  No matter where we are in our careers, it is nice to see that there is an opportunity to advance and directions on how to get there. 

What other selling points do you see that could entice the next generation of commercial property underwriters? 

Williams:  Like many industries today, the insurance industry is anything but static. It is constantly changing.  While I am concerned that we can transfer the knowledge that we have accumulated through some major events, the good news is there are also a growing array of new tools and technologies, not to mention loads of  information that are available to commercial property underwriters today.  That’s giving them new insights and understanding that many of us may not have had in previous decades.

If the next generation of commercial property underwriters enlists these new tools and technologies and uses the data and analytics now available to them, their level of expertise gets a boost almost immediately.  This is their opportunity to pioneer news paths in commercial property underwriting.  And I look forward to seeing that happen. 


About the Author

With more than 30 years of insurance industry experience, Jeff knows a lot about underwriting complex property risks.  Want to tap into his expertise?  Contact him at or 1 312 444 6509.

To learn more about XL Catlin’s personalized approach to commercial property insurance, GO HERE.

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