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Unum Scholars Program: A win-win for students, major employer

Dana Kerr

Back in 2008, when USM partnered with the business community to develop a risk management and insurance (RMI) track within the School of Business, a top goal was to create a pipeline of talent for Maine’s booming insurance industry.

A decade later, that symbiotic relationship is thriving.

There are now about 70 USM students involved in some capacity with the RMI track each year, and job placement for those students exceeds 90 percent.

“We actually have more jobs available in this area than we do students coming out of the program,” says Professor Dana Kerr, who heads up the RMI program.

One major component of the jobs pipeline is the Unum Scholars program. Launched in Maine in 2014, the program gives USM students the opportunity to work for two years as part-time Unum employees. The students receive training, mentorship and the ability to job shadow in various departments at a company that employs nearly 3,000 people in Maine. Most Unum scholars are offered full-time jobs when they graduate from USM.

“Our students are not only able to make money toward school, but they gain valuable work experience at a Fortune 500 company, and a head start toward employment,” Kerr said.

“We have had a lot of good students who have gone into the Scholars program and ended up with permanent jobs there, and they have really enjoyed their experiences.”

Unum generally employs eight to 12 scholars from USM at any given time. In the spring of 2016, eight of the scholars graduated from USM. Seven of them were hired as full-time employees at Unum, and the eighth took a job at another insurance company.

Students from a wide range of USM departments, not only the School of Business, are encouraged to apply for the program. For example, Unum has selected students majoring in English, health sciences and liberal studies. Students must have completed 60 credit hours and have a minimum 3.0 GPA to apply. The scholars work anywhere from 15-19 hours per week and are able to work flexible hours so they can maintain their class schedule.

“All of the USM students come with a great skill set and are excited for the opportunity. We find they do extremely well here,” said Hanako Cashin, human resources program manager at Unum. “They bring a fresh perspective to the company. They’re very curious, and they ask great questions and have the courage to provide feedback and ask us questions about why we do things a certain way.”

Part of Cashin’s role is to make sure the scholars have a positive experience. She also serves as a talent broker of sorts. As Cashin gets to know each scholar and understand his or her strengths, she is better able to match them with different departments.

“Our goal, whenever we can, is to provide them with an advanced job offer, so they can really enjoy their senior year and make that transition as seamless as possible,” Cashin said. “If Unum is not a good fit for them, we still want them to be able to come out of the program feeling good about it, and to say it helped them achieve whatever they wanted to do post-graduation.”

Local prospects for employment in the insurance field are excellent, Kerr said. In greater Portland alone, there are about 20 companies focused on disability insurance, employing roughly 5,000 people. Sun Life Financial recently opened a large satellite office in Scarborough, after considering several metro areas. The president of Sun Life’s U.S. operations told the news media that the cluster of other insurance companies was a key factor in the location decision.

“When you look at per capita jobs, the concentration of insurance jobs here in southern Maine, including claims, underwriting and actuarial science, ranks in the top five nationwide,” Kerr said.

Bryanna Phillips, a USM junior from Westbrook, heard about the Unum Scholars program through a friend who works for the company. Phillips, an accounting major, did not expect to be selected because she was only a sophomore at the time.

“I’ve always wanted to work in the business environment, and I thought this would be a great way to get a foot in the door,” Phillips said.

Unum hired Phillips as a scholar in the fall of 2016. She worked full time for the company this summer, and is now continuing as a scholar, working 16 hours a week. In the core market underwriting unit, Phillips helps assess mid-size businesses for different insurance products. She has also job shadowed other employees in different units. Phillips is interested in working as a sales representative or in Unum’s finance department after graduation in 2019.

“When I interviewed, I thought it would be more of a typical business internship, photocopying and that sort of thing,” she said. “It is definitely not that. You have a lot of responsibilities and you are considered an important part of the team.”


By Trevor Maxwell for USM Connects