Discovering Insurance – How James Elmhirst Built His Career as an Underwriter


It was just another night out with friends. James Elmhirst, a newly graduated Economics major from Queen’s University, wasn’t having much luck finding a job. So he decided to do something slightly unorthodox.

“I began recording the names of companies in my phone as I walked the streets of Toronto,” said James. It was then that he spotted the logo of his future employer.

“I remember typing ‘Zurich’ in my iPhone Notes after seeing the company’s iconic big blue Z at its old 400 University Avenue office tower,” he said. The very next day, he researched Zurich and discovered that it named a leading company in the Insurance industry.

At that point though, James knew very little about Insurance. “Insurance? It never crossed my mind,” he said. “But to be honest, I wasn’t really targeting any specific industry for employment upon graduation – instead, I was seeking a role within a global organization that offered a formal training program.” James liked what he learned about Zurich’s Underwriting Training Program. He took a chance, applied and got in – kickstarting a career in Insurance!

Where People Persons Thrive

Ever since he joined the Insurance industry in June of 2013, James has found it to be a fantastic fit for his personality and skills. “I’m highly analytical but also a people person,” he said. “My technical skills, developed through an analytical university program, have complemented my strong soft skills and are well-suited for a career within the Insurance industry.”

While there are many qualities that would benefit you in Insurance, there are two in particular that he finds most important.

James Elmhirst
James Elmhirst
Underwriting Specialist at AIG
Economics, Queen’s University 2013

“Respect and personal drive are some of the most pivotal traits for aspiring insurance professionals to possess,” said James. “Respect is the foundation of having strong ‘soft’ skills and Insurance is a ‘people business’ so being able to establish and maintain relationships with colleagues, brokers and clients is of utmost importance.”

When he first began working in Insurance, he found it overwhelming to meet so many new and important people. Seeing this, his manager stepped in and helped him adapt. “Luckily, my manager at the time set up a few appointments for me to meet some of the other managers and gain an understanding of the different business units,” he said. Also, he regularly turned to coworkers to learn more about his role and the Insurance industry.

“One of the notable things for me was my team’s willingness to help,” he said. “I always wanted to know the best way to solve a problem and my team was open to answering any questions that I had.”

In addition to the support of his manager and coworkers, he grew through sheer observation from the unique position of his cubicle. “I was situated near the senior management team and absorbed a lot of their strategy and professional demeanor,” said James. “For example, the CEO’s office was down the hall and I learned a lot just from witnessing their communications and how they handled difficult situations.”

Having had ample opportunity to learn from the professionals around him, James is now confident about his career in Insurance. “It’s important to have people in your corner,” he said. “They can assist with overcoming any challenges you’re facing on a day-to-day basis.”

Companies as Valued Clients

James is currently an Underwriting Specialist with AIG, a position he’s held since August 2015. “I would describe underwriting as a hybrid between a pricing analyst and sales role,” he said. “You need to be highly analytical to assess insured risk and come up with a price that is adequate to support paying potential claims and there’s a big sales component in it that you need to explain to the customer why they should buy coverage with your company.”

The customer, in his case, are not individuals but large companies who he communicates and works with on behalf of his employer. “I work with corporations typically exceeding $700M in annual revenues,” he said. “These accounts are complex, often presenting unique and challenging obstacles from an underwriting perspective.” Additionally, his role as an underwriter opens him to collaboration with several important partners.

“I work collaboratively with Brokers and Risk Managers to ensure that the client is well protected from an insurance standpoint,” he said. “I also work with a dedicated Team of AIG colleagues, including Underwriting Support, Credit, Actuarial, Claims, and Marketing to craft customer-centric insurance programs.”

Along with giving him the opportunity to expand his skillset and network, his work in Insurance has allowed him to develop a deeper understanding of how the economy works. “Something I found interesting is that Insurance is a behind-the-scenes industry that is crucial in making the economy grow,” he said. “If you’re walking on the street and you see a hotel being built, there’s an insurance policy that allows investors to more confidently put their capital in.” He’s discovered that Insurance is a necessary element of the investment that allows economies to thrive. “We’re really offering peace of mind to our insurers,” said James. “Without insurance, there is no element of protection.”

Driven by the Desire to Learn

In hindsight, James would definitely change a few details on his first job applications.“I used to emphasize my strong willingness to learn,” he said. “Looking back, I believe that the words drive or desire are more fitting than willingness.” He points out that showing the employer that you’re an avid learner both as a candidate and employee is one of the keys to being successful in the Insurance industry and as a professional in general. “It’s cliché to say be like a sponge but it is truly great advice – turn every scenario into a learning opportunity.”

He also notes that as new grads, we’re often in such a hurry to secure a job after graduation that we overlook the importance of taking the time and energy to find the right job. “There will not always be low-hanging fruit to pick – sometimes you will need to climb the tree to reap its riches,” he said. “Having recognized this early in my career, the Insurance industry has been a great fit for me as I’ve been able to embrace new challenges as opportunities to learn.”

Once you’ve found a great position, James says that it’s important to turn to your colleagues for support, especially in a people-focused industry like Insurance. “As advice, I’d recommend all young professionals to learn from their colleagues – ask questions, write down responses for reference, and thank your colleagues for their help.” He adds that we should always remember to help out our team as well. “Also, remember that it’s a two-way work relationship – do your best to return the favour, and to help your team whenever possible!”

Still wondering if you should join the Insurance industry? From not knowing anything about the industry as a student to thriving as a confident young professional, James knows it’s an environment where those ready to learn can shine. “The insurance industry is full of opportunity – if you’re someone who has a strong work ethic and consider yourself a ‘people’ person, your career options within the industry are truly unlimited.”

Want to learn more about the Insurance industry? Check out the Insurance Institute’s career resources page, Career Connections for more information!

About the author

Akemi Liyanage Akemi Liyanage is a Content and Community Coordinator at TalentEgg. Helping millennials get on their feet and rise through the world as successful professionals is the reason she gets out of bed every morning. Tweet her your career questions, thoughts and ideas at @akemiliyanage.