INSURANCE IS NOT EXACTLY a profession of choice.

The understatement is courtesy of Ellen Thrower, the recently appointed president of the New York-based College of Insurance. Speaking at a luncheon sponsored by the Association of Professional Insurance Women, an industry trade group, Ms. Thrower asked the 50 or so gathered at the Wall Street Club how many actually WANTED a job in the insurance industry. One woman raised her hand.When the laughter subsided, Ms. Thrower said in her many years of teaching insurance, no one's ever come up to me and said, 'I want to major in insurance.' Her point was that the business of insurance is derided by most

college students, if not the rest of us.

Studies indicate that insurers are not seen as competent business people, said Ms. Thrower. They're viewed as door-to-door policy peddlers in polyester suits. No wonder the industry's image is so bad.

She added wryly that she hasn't seen such attire on an insurance salesman in at least 15 years. But when I talk with young people, that's what they say.

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A CHANGE OF ATTIRE nevertheless hasn't helped the public's perception.

Ms. Thrower, deeply tanned and rather smartly dressed herself, said the industry's negative image could lead to a drastic change in the way it's regulated.

We may lose McCarran-Ferguson, she said, referring to the 43-year-old cornerstone of insurance regulation. And now we stand accused of collusion and boycott. All of our jobs are made harder by the image of the industry that prevails. (For those unaware, last month over 30 U.S. and British insurers, reinsurers and trade associations were accused by nine state attorneys general of massive antitrust violations, the most insidious fraud ever perpetrated on the American public, said Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox.)

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EVERYONE KNOWS THE INDUSTRY'S IMAGE is up there with used car salesmen.

Except for many insurance company leaders, according to the insurance

college's new chief.

Ms. Thrower pointed to an Ernst & Whinney survey of insurance company CEOs, 86 percent of which said they were satisfied with the industry's image.

Of 15 objectives for the future, the CEOs listed the goal of enhancing the industry's image last. In addition, only 5 percent said the public's perception was of any concern.

I'm astounded by this, said Ms. Thrower. How do we correct this?

It's a rhetorical question really, because she's got some strong ideas.

What I'm talking about is changing fundamental attitudes - a grass roots effort to re-educate people about the unique nature of insurance and its value to society. And colleges can help, she said. We have more credibility and no axes to grind.

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TEACH THEM WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG and impressionable.

In 1970 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Ms. Thrower - the university's director of insurance - tried an unusual experiment involving high school teachers. Many of the teachers incorporate parts of insurance into their curriculum, but frequently don't understand it well, she said. So between 1970 and 1985 (when the program was curtailed for lack of funds), 350 to 400 Des Moines-area teachers were provided with a workable knowledge of insurance and insight into how to teach it, said Ms. Thrower.

Here's the exciting part: In a recent survey of 100 teachers who took the program between 1980 and 1985, the respondents expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the program and a newfound appreciation of the industry.

Forty-one percent said the workshop changed their image of the industry in a positive way. And not a single person said they now had a negative perception of the industry. This is the grass roots effort we need.

Drake's program for high school teachers will resume this summer, thanks to a grant from the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. And the program will now draw from six neighboring states.

The next college to provide the program? The College of Insurance.

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The attendees at the luncheon, perhaps 95 percent women, were some of the most articulate, passionate supporters of insurance I've seen and heard in eight years covering the industry. These women are sincere about enhancing the industry's image. I tried to play devil's advocate with Ms. Thrower and was nearly tossed (or thrown) from the 59th floor of Chase Manhattan Plaza.

In an industry dominated by men in the leadership positions, the attendees were refreshingly idealistic. Let these professionals run the industry and its image will improve markedly, I say.

There wasn't a polyester suit in sight.