Used to be, job titles didn't get much less hip than "insurance agent. " Often it was a guy who worked long hours in a small office and...

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Used to be, job titles didn’t get much less hip than “insurance agent.”

Often it was a guy who worked long hours in a small office and had to make “cold calls” or go door-to-door, clutching a briefcase like a secret agent and trying to ignore all the “No thanks” he heard and doors being closed in his face.

Though that stereotype might still linger in certain quarters, the job — and the industry — has evolved into something decidedly different.

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In fact, these days, thanks to a younger work force, self-set schedules, a change in selling strategies — and, just maybe, a telegenic gecko — the insurance biz is practically cool.

“In the past, you’d think of somebody that’s pretty uptight,” said Kimberly Pepper, senior regional communications manager for Allstate Insurance’s Northwest region. “But now it’s actually kind of exciting. It’s kind of young and entrepreneurial. A lot of our agents are 40 and under, and this is a career change for them.”

Case in point: Pat Sprague, owner of Sprague Insurance Agency on Mercer Island.

Insure a career

Demand: Overall, the demand for insurance salespeople is expected to be slower than average, but good for people who are flexible, ambitious, have good interpersonal skills and know about a wide range of insurance and financial services. And because most people and businesses consider insurance a necessity, agents are not likely to face unemployment because of a recession.

Pay: The median annual salary of insurance sales agents was $40,750 in 2002, the latest figures available, with most ranging from $28,860 to $64,450. The highest 10 percent earned more than $101,460. Many agents are paid by commission only.

Career information: Independent Insurance Agents of America,, Insurance Vocational Education Student Training (InVEST),

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Sprague, 40, had been commuting to California as a marketing consultant until his contacts lost their jobs in a merger. On the lookout for other career options, he asked a golf buddy about his job. The friend said he was an Allstate insurance agent.

“He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands, and I asked, ‘How do you do it?’ ” Sprague said. “I always had a stereotype that it wasn’t appealing to me, but he told me about his lifestyle, how he started, what he was doing and the possibilities, and it really got me excited.”

After Allstate approved Sprague as a candidate — based on a basic-skills test and a personality assessment — he took about 100 hours of schooling in order to pass the state licensing exam, followed by training with Allstate.

He opened his agency in February 2003. (You also can start an agency by buying another agent’s already built-up business.)

“With Allstate, you are the business owner,” Sprague said. “It’s like owning your own business with the support of a major corporation behind you.”

That support can be substantial — financially and emotionally.

“They offer a great program to help people get [on] their feet without going six months without income,” Sprague said. “They paid me $14,000 just to complete their program and open an agency. They paid for all of my infrastructure in the office — computers, printers, telephone — everything I need to write business.”

The company offers a mentorship program that eases a lot of growing pains, said Sprague, who also relied on an unofficial mentor, a highly placed corporate employee in the agency-development program.

“If I ever called him, there wasn’t a time he wouldn’t get back to me the same day,” Sprague said. “That kind of brings tears to my eyes. That kind of support can really motivate me. If you feel you have a boss that cares and shows it, you’ll bust your butt for them.”

And he has. Sprague worked 12 to 15 hours a day for the first four to five months, honing it down to his current 45-hour workweek. His goal, after all, was to earn enough so his wife, Stephanie, could stay home in Snoqualmie Ridge with their two preschool children, and to have time to spend with them.

“It’s scary,” he said. “You’re responsible for your own income. If I’m not working hard, I’m not creating income.”

As an owner, Sprague said, there’s little choice but to work hard.

“You have to have a skill level from accounting to business planning to budgeting and janitor,” he said. “There isn’t any facet of work that you don’t have to do, or somebody should be doing. That’s what’s great about it. It’s very exciting. A day in this job goes faster than any other job. I’m glad I got my own business. I can only blame myself if I fail.”

So far, there’s been more credit than blame to assign.

Sprague has hired what he calls a “pretty young team” and has built his business enough that his policy renewals pay for his staff.

Unlike agents of old, they do not go door-to-door. They network, join business groups, volunteer, establish relationships with mortgage brokers and real-estate agents — “anything a person can do to connect with somebody,” Sprague said.

“Everybody out there owns something, so I look at almost everybody as being a possible client. I’m handing out my business card like candy.”

Agents are paid on commission. When Sprague writes a policy, he gets a commission off the sale. When it renews in six months, he gets paid again. It can add up quickly.

While the median annual salary for insurance agents is about $41,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pay can vary widely.

Sprague estimated that a hardworking agent could gross $150,000 the first year.

“It sounds crazy — it’s insurance!” Sprague said. “My idea before I got into it was, why would I want to be one of those people just scraping a living and have that stigma attached? But if you’re a people person, a good listener, a go-getter, you’d be a fool not to look into this as a career.”