Friday, July 31, 2015

Banking on Nothing

For the past five months, I've held down a temp position with a company that handles insurance claims for an ambulance company. What I'm doing is essentially data entry; I started out doing the first stage of billing for ambulance claims, and I've parlayed that into doing the insurance aspect as well. I'm not selling insurance, just crunching numbers and accumulating personal information, but this position offers some parallels to a near-miss situation I had half a decade ago.

I tried to downplay it on this blog, but the Summer of 2010 was pretty rough for me. Between being unemployed, the first round of family health issues (culminating in my mom having a stroke) and feeling increasingly isolated from my old social circles, it was a struggle to maintain a positive mindset. Some of that was fate, but my own naivete was also in play.

I lucked out insofar that I found work right after college. I worked 20 hours a week at my uncle's insurance office, then applied to a substitute teacher for extra money. I had my mind set on a career in the radio industry (which I've discussed before), so after my uncle's death and my abrupt dismissal from Salem Communications, I had nothing to fall back on. It was too late in the school year to apply anywhere to sub, so I applied for unemployment benefits and began my first real extensive job search online.

Within a week of losing my job, I set up accounts on CareerBuilder and, two sites that I still occasionally glance at five years later. I posted my resume and hoped for the best, while also maintaining a goal of finishing at least one job application a day. Within a day or two of posting my resume, I began to get offers from local insurance agencies. I had never worked in sales before, but the form letter was convincing enough to at least consider the possibility.

Once such company was Bankers Life. They were holding an open house at their regional office in Palos Heights, a town 35 minutes of east of my parents' house. I put on the only suit I owned at the time and made the long drive, where a group of about 20 were seated in the center of the office. We listened to a 40-minute presentation by the branch's managers, which was followed by a Q&A session. It was a sales position with a 100% commission, some door-to-door soliciting, no upfront base salary, and obviously there would be a long commute, but I was simply happy to have my foot in the door.

The day after the group interview, Bankers Life called back to ask how everything went, and if I would be interested in going to a second presentation. I said yes, and a few days later I made the trek back to Palos Heights to watch a Powerpoint presentation. We were now in a shared conference room in another part of the building, with about a dozen people from the original group attending. The day after that, I was asked if I was still interested; I said yes, and a one-on-one interview with one of the managers was arranged.

The interview turned out to be quite an experience. I found out shortly after my arrival that I was the only person in the whole group to agree to get interviewed. The man who interviewed me was a piece of work. Norm was a self-made man with a beautiful wife and a time-share in the Bahamas, with awards adorning one full wall of his office and a few more on a nearby end-table. He exuded self-confidence, but his idea of persuasion bordered into bullying. When he asked me if I agreed about something, I said "yes" as if my life depended upon his mercy. Next thing I know, I agreed to pay for training courses and for the exam for a state license, all in advance.

The next two weeks were an epic cram session. I was given two textbooks to study the ins and outs of selling life insurance, but I wasn't absorbing anything. My ability to take the exam I had already paid for depended upon whether I could pass an online practice test; where 70% was a passing grade, the best I could muster on a dozen tries was 58%. The pre-exam was timed, so flipping through notes would've run out the clock. I drove to Schaumberg for a two-day training program held at a La Quinta, which clarified some things but couldn't quite get me over the hump. When Norm called to ask how things were going, I grinned insincerely and said I was making progress.

The exam was scheduled for 8 AM on a Saturday morning. I brought all my materials with me, even though you couldn't use notes on the test. As I walked into the state testing office, I explained to the receptionist that I did not get the needed 70% on the practice test. They told me that under no circumstances I could take the test now, but I could reschedule and pay another fee to do so. I left the testing office in defeat, walked back to my car in the misty rain, and left a voice mail for the pre-test company to demand a refund (they eventually said no). I also e-mailed Norm to explain my situation, but he never replied. For all intents and purposes, my "career" at Bankers Life was over.

In spite of getting cajoled out of $300, Bankers Life sent me another form e-mail six months later, and I responded tersely that I wanted to be excluded from any other correspondence. As recently as earlier this year, whenever I would update my resume on CareerBuilder or Monster I would get similar e-mails hyping the benefits of a career as a "senior marketing executive" with AFLAC, Farmers Insurance Group, and the such. I would respond by asking the representative if the position was 100% commission and if I would have to pay for training and a license. About 80% of the time they would get dodgy and ask me to attend their informational session, and the conversation would die right there. The other 20% or so would say admit that you need to pay for a state sales license (which is true) but they offered a base salary for the first six months. In that case, correspondence would halt because I simply wasn't interested.

I write this as a cautionary tale of what happens when an opportunity turns out to be too good to be true. As tempting as it may be at times, I have sworn off insurance sales and its ilk; I had a temp position in the records room at a now-shuttered Farmers Insurance corporate office, and that was about as close to repeating fate that I was comfortable with. If you're struggling to find work or are underemployed, as I've been for parts of the last five years, don't jump on the first possible opportunity unless you know you're absolutely qualified. My condolences to the other people in the world who were suckered into such an allegedly lucrative career.


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