To rev up the Washington Redskins, legendary coach George Allen liked to say: “The future is now.”

That pithy analysis certainly makes sense to those in the risk management and insurance industry who are scrutinizing a looming talent shortage and trying to figure out ways to engage the next generation while retaining the brainpower of baby boomers moving into retirement.

“Now is the time to get going on this talent gap—and we are,” says Peter Miller, the president and chief executive officer of the American Institute for CPCU and the Insurance Institute of America.

Adds Sharon Emek, an insurance expert who focuses on placing savvy retired professionals back in the insurance game: “A major talent drain is also an opportunity…to capture industry baby boomers who want to continue to work.”

The problem is certainly daunting. The average insurance employee is 58 years old. According to McKinsey & Company, nearly 500,000 professionals, or about one fourth of the industry’s workforce, will retire in the decade ending in 2018.

Attracting new talent won’t be easy, McKinsey says, citing the industry’s “poor reputation,” a limited talent pool, and a lack of understanding of career opportunities among the young. The company says the industry should pursue a unified strategy to overcome what it calls the “talent challenge.”

This is a great industry. What do they value in a job? What are their hot buttons? We need to fashion a message to hit those hot buttons.

Peter Miller - The Institutes

The message, it seems, is being heard loud and clear. Indeed, many in the business are now pressing to deliver that theme to the next generation—that insurance is, well, a pretty cool career.

Atlanta is a good place to start. In September 2011, after McKinsey’s grim report, representatives from insurance firms, trade associations and universities, students among them, gathered for an education summit titled “Engaging the Next Generation.” The participants agreed that the Griffith Insurance Education Foundation and its affiliate, The Institutes, should take the lead in developing a plan to attract millennials to the insurance business.

The Institutes and Griffith subsequently surveyed more than 1,600 young people, asking what they wanted from potential employers. The findings, issued in early 2012, concluded that messaging should focus on career opportunities and how problems are solved and people are helped.

To the young, the survey found, insurance was almost a dirty word: “Messages need to avoid a focus on selling insurance, as this was the most common reason why millennials were not interested in working in the insurance industry. Also, the messaging needs to combat the image of a boring industry.”

In an interview, The Institutes’ Peter Miller says the industry must demonstrate the many options available in an insurance career, including work as finance experts, lawyers, doctors and nurses. He adds, “This is a great industry. What do they value in a job? What are their hot buttons? We need to fashion a message to hit those hot buttons.”

Miller says negative perceptions also must be tackled head-on. “I think a lot of times, insurance is a scapegoat,” he says. “In Katrina, probably 98% of the claims…were settled within a short period of time, and people were satisfied, but that is not what you hear about in the press.”

Industry leaders are pressing those positive buttons. In 2010, Leader’s Edge published a special supplement titled “The Hottest Career You Never Heard Of.” The selling point: “Not your door-to-door salesman trying to smooth-talk your grandma into upping the plan on her ’75 LeSabre. We’re talking high-risk commercial insurance—for Fortune 500s, movies, sports teams, international trade deals, space launches and…Heidi Klum’s legs.”

The Council participated in the insurance summit and is working with college students, faculty and career advisors to support the development of future leaders for the agent-broker community. The Council also administers FAME, the Foundation for Agency Management Excellence, an educational foundation that provides scholarships to university students in RMI programs who want to pursue a career in insurance and agent-broker distribution. In the current academic year, FAME is sponsoring 37 scholarships, worth $5,000 apiece, at 22 universities and colleges.

Companies are importing talent, a recruiting process that will only increase in coming years. Many companies are hiring interns, an arrangement that enables the interns to see for themselves whether insurance fits their career goals and enables the companies to see whether the interns fit the organization’s talent goals. Arthur J. Gallagher and Company is a leader in recruiting young talent, according to Julia Kramer, The Council’s senior vice president of Leadership & Management Resources and director of FAME. Gallagher, she says, hires 150 to 200 interns a year. “Their intern program is a machine,” Kramer says, “a well oiled and beautifully maintained machine.”

Kramer says recruiting has changed dramatically in the last decade. In the past, firms did not target college students but focused on high school graduates, relatives of existing employees and college athletes. “College athletes were huge,” she says. Now, she says, industry leaders are touting the benefits of an insurance career to college students and are actively recruiting on university campuses. Kramer, who spends a lot of time speaking with industry officials, says that firms recognize the need and urgency to recruit bright, young talent. Recruitment and retention, she says, top the list of challenges at every member firm she meets with.

She worries, however, that, with so many baby boomers going out the door, institutional knowledge is leaving with them. That’s where Sharon Emek fits in.

Emek, an agency principal of CBS Coverage Group, is the founder of WAHVE, or Work At Home Vintage Employees, an outfit that focuses on keeping retirees in the insurance workplace. She says many old hands don’t want to retire—they like making a few bucks to supplement their retiree benefits and maintain a comfortable lifestyle. So she came up with the idea of WAHVE, which allows retirees to work as independent contractors, providing services to agencies from any location. The program saves companies money and helps prevent a major talent drain.

“The retirees can have another way of continuing to work, to be productive, to mentor people,” she explains. “You can work from anywhere and have more life-work balance.” She says WAHVE has 1,000 qualified professionals in its database and has already placed 100 people in insurance firms across the country.

“This is not a Band-Aid—it is part of the answer to the larger issue,” Emek says. “We are talking about a knowledge industry. People can find the talent at the right place and the right price. I think we will become the repository of the industry’s retiring talent.