April 6, 2014


in the right field?
Here’s another request for career advice.
Hello Promod! I’m a first year student currently enrolled in the Mathematics and Statistics Co-op program at the University of Toronto. I am willing to become an actuary in the future and have no personal connection with anyone as of yet. I have a few questions regarding the career itself, and possible paths one would need to take in order to attain this career. I would appreciate if you could answer them as it would help me make my life’s first important decision.

Firstly, I would like to know how you go about handling your duties on a daily basis, in other words, if I were to be an actuary for a day, what I am going to be facing that day as a guarantee. I am also willing to know if the daily activities of an actuary are repetitive, or will my work differ from day to day? Another thing I’m willing to find out is the challenges actuaries face as a result of their career, internally and externally, whether it be the actual tasks that they complete, or whether it be the people that they face, or even potential consequences they may have. I am hoping to find what the future holds for these careers. Here, not only am I looking for whether or not the job opportunities will increase or decrease, but I am also looking for other careers that may use the skills that I have attained in these career areas.

By analyzing your responses to these questions, I would be able to figure out whether or not I see myself as an actuary in the foreseeable future. Your response to these questions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time!
When I was still in the corporate world, a student asked seven questions. Another asked to job shadow me to “witness the daily activities that an actuary performs and see if I can picture myself doing the same 20, 30 or 40 years from now.”

The requests are thoughtful but life is unpredictable. Here’s another attempt at answering the underlying questions.

Starting Out After Graduation

In each of 1983 and 1985, Metropolitan Life hired six actuarial grads for the Canadian Head Office (CHO) in Ottawa. In 1984, the economy was bad and they only hired me. The unemployment rate among my classmates was 77% (only 4 of 17 got jobs). Is the economy any more predictable today?

I got the usual actuarial equipment: a big electric printing calculator and a monochrome terminal connected to an unseen mainframe computer. No Internet. No smartphones. No answering machines.

On the plus side, you couldn’t take work home.

I shared a telephone with a coworker who smoked at her desk. Another colleague got sent home for forgetting to wear a tie. At the time, Metropolitan Life was the second largest life insurance company in North America. Within years, they left Canada. I had already moved on.
My Evolution
You gravitate toward the type of work you like and are good at doing.

I’ve been good at learning, experimenting and communicating. Much of my work was project-based. For instance, launching a new product. I liked variety, uncertainty and making decisions. You might prefer work which is more predictable and guided.

Shortly after I started working at Met Life, the Chief Actuary (my boss’s boss’s boss) wanted basic color graphs for an important presentation. I didn’t know how to create them but no one available did either. We were in the early days of computers and graphing printers used expensive felt pens. I learned how to graph and found ways to communicate results better than expected. I made my boss, boss’s boss and boss’s boss’s boss look good. Do that and you look good too.

In those days, actuaries did coding (then called “programming”) in APL — powerful but tough to use well. I became good through self-study, which opened up more opportunities. Even today, coding is considered a must-have job skill. You can learn for free on your own time, how many bother?

You gain a valuable edge when you do what others can’t or won’t do.

A Typical Day

There’s no typical job, which means there’s no typical day. Roles change with circumstances, your abilities and your level.

An actuary is trained to measure and manage risk. That seems technical but computers simplify the work. Success requires many soft skills such as getting along with others, communicating clearly, thinking independently, innovating and meeting deadlines.

There are many different kinds of actuaries. I’ve worked primarily in the world of personal insurance (life, critical illness, disability). While the product actuary at National Life, I had three actuaries reporting to me. We focused on universal life insurance optimized for wealthy clients. Success required creativity, a deep understanding of the tax laws and the creation of effective point-of-sale computer-based tools.
The Team
I had an actuary for each of these core responsibilities:
  1. New product development:  analyzing competitiveness, calculating profitability including “what if” scenarios, writing product descriptions (for the launch process)
  2. Advisor support: answering questions, developing/testing point-of-sale computer-based marketing tools, gathering market intelligence
  3. Administrative support: getting the customer service systems updated to accommodate the product features, drafting policy contract wording, projecting performance of inforce policies
Each role was important but required different skills and personalities. My other seven staff were also involved, primarily with advisor support. Managing people was necessary but not as easy or enjoyable as I first thought. I invested time in learning how to get better.

Career Stages

When you get your first job, you'll be doing work related to your skills. Since your skills are limited, don't count on doing work which is especially interesting. You're learning how to meld into the working world — skills you only master by doing. Demonstrate your growing skills and and you’ll get new opportunities.
Changing Roles
Big insurers like Met Life had a rotation program for students writing the actuarial exams (10 at the time). You work in a department for two years. The first year, you learn from the actuarial student who's about to leave. The second year you train your replacement. This process helps you decide which department suits you. I worked in Corporate Finance, Personal Insurance and Group Insurance. That left Investments and Pensions but I left the company by then.

You also got paid study time (3 workdays per hour of exam). For a five hour exam, that's 15 days (three workweeks). Write twice a year and that's 30 work days (six workweeks). Add three weeks of vacation and you’re away nine weeks a year. Plus you get juicy salary increases for passing.

I don’t know what the practices are in today’s leaner world since I’m in the nontraditional role of helping the public review, repair and renovate their insurance at Taxevity.

Your Brand

There's tremendous value in building a personal brand. That was very difficult in the past, even if you wanted to stand out. How could anyone find you? Now we have Google. How could they gauge your experience? Now we have LinkedIn. How could you show your thought leadership? Now we have blogs. How could anyone  hear or see you? Now we have podcasts and YouTube, respectively.

What’s your strategy? When will you start? When you’re looking for work, your classmates are your competitors …

The Opportunities

As a student, you’re usually too young to make the right decisions for a 30-50 year career. It’s easy to get fooled by common career myths. Look around. Despite best efforts at planning, many people hate their jobs and even change careers (though the oft-repeated estimate of  seven career switches seems unlikely).

The good news is that you don’t have to make the right decision today. You just need to make a good decision and then adapt. Keep developing portable skills to keep fresh and maintain your edge as new opportunities arise.


PS Even if you’d rather not, keep building trust with networking.


Kelly Rabin said...

I couldn't figure out how to post a comment in the version of IE that I am using, but it is working in Firefox.

Great advice. As a student I remember having a very simplified view of the world. "Consulting is exciting! Insurance companies are boring!" and "Consultants are better communicators." (maybe true on average, at least at lower levels). Having worked in both environments, it dramatically depends on the kind of work you want to do. I hated some of the work that I did as a student. So I thought I would hate being an actuary. I even considered leaving the profession. Once I got my FSA, I realized that the exams were the ticket to an interesting career path in the insurance industry, as well as to a unique way of thinking about the world.

The advice I would give a student now is that the most important trait you can bring to the business world is adaptability. Getting rid of my preconceived notions about the jobs that I would and wouldn't like has been hugely helpful.

I am glad you point out that student work can be pretty boring though. Entry-level work is often boring no matter what field you go into. You have the chance to sharpen your spreadsheet and programming skills while getting paid to study (vs. going to grad school). I wish I'd had more perspective on this when I was in those shoes. :) You are also learning how to self-study which is critical for keeping up your skills in this profession. When a new regulation comes out, there is no professor who will come spoon-feed it to you.

Best of luck in your decision!

Promod Sharma said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kelly. Adaptability is very important.

I've challenges with actuarial students who thought some work was below them. For instance, photocopying was needed and our secretary was away. That's a time to pitch in!