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The Actuary Magazine December 2004 - What's hot? What's not!

What's Hot? What's Not! Top recruiters share information on competition, employment trends and the job market

By Jacque Kirkwood

How can one become more marketable? What's the most effective way to land that non–traditional position? What skill sets do today's employer's want when they're looking to fill a position with an actuary? These and other related questions are answered in this article—Part II—of "What's hot? What's Not? Top recruiters share information on the competition, employment trends and job options."

Part I of this two–part series can be found in the October 2004 issue of The Actuary magazine.

The following list includes the names of the recruiters who contributed to this article. The staff of The Actuary would like to thank them for their participating in this project and sharing their expertise and knowledge of the subject matter.

  • Jeannette L. Bertsch, The Birch Corporation, jbirch@bellsouth.net
  • Jerry Hayes, Holden & Harlan Associates, jerryhayes@covad.net
  • Patty Jacobsen, D.W. Simpson & Company in Chicago, patty.jacobsen@dwsimpson.com
  • Aimee Kaye, Actuarial Careers, Inc.®, AimeeKaye@actuarialcareers.com
  • Steve Klarman, S.K. Associates, Steve.Klarman@skassociates.com
  • Margaret Resce Milkint, The Jacobson Group, mmilkint@jacobsononline.com
  • Susan Robertson, Quantum Selection.com, susan@quantumselection.com (Note that answers relate primarily to the actuarial recruitment markets in the UK, continental Europe, Asia (including primarily Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China, but also other locations within the region), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.)
  • Thanks too, to Maria Thomson, FSA, author of the book, Insurance Coverage for All!...And How Insurers Can Afford to Provide It. An SOA member, Thomson gave Jerry Hayes permission to quote her in some of his responses for this article.

The Actuary: What are employers looking for regarding actuarial experience, skill sets, etc.?

Bertsch: Creative individuals with credentials and solid experience in financial reporting, product development, etc. are highly sought after in today's market. Excellent interpersonal, marketing, presentation and management skills are also vital.

Hayes: There seems to be a bigger push for student actuaries, new ASAs and FSAs. Investment oriented products for pensions and tax sheltering of assets are probably the most common type of business sold by the industry today. Thus, actuaries who have a good grounding in various types of financial instruments (such as derivatives), the methods for accurately modeling and valuing these instruments and asset/liability management will be well prepared for a high percentage of the available actuarial jobs.

These jobs could be in product development, valuations or portfolio management. The employers could be group or individual insurers, or the firms that provide portfolio management services for insurers. Actuarial skills at modeling/evaluating complex financial instruments could even be utilized by Wall Street firms that do not specialize in insurance work.

Jacobsen: The actuarial experience desired varies depending on the regulatory environment, social behaviors, the economy and capital markets. However, business acumen, the ability to explain complex and technical results to non–technical audiences, flexibility, creativity and a results–oriented individual are always important parts of an employer's desired skill set.

Kaye: Employers are looking for different actuarial skill sets depending on the level and line of business. What is important right now? For the junior openings, modeling—using one of the actuarial software packages—is a key skill set to have for pricing, financial, investment and reinsurance positions. In addition, being a self–starter, having energy and enthusiasm will go a long way even if you are somewhat deficient on the technical side.

Mid–level positions also require strong technical experience as well as having demonstrated business acumen, leadership, initiative and excellent communication and interpersonal skills. For senior level positions, hiring managers are looking for those candidates who have had P&L responsibility, risk management experience, are creative and can be agents of change. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills along with a high energy level and enthusiasm is worth stressing for actuaries at all levels.

Klarman: Employers consider working knowledge of the software and statistical packages relevant to a particular discipline extremely important, along with the ability to combine analysis with succinct presentation skills.

There is a definite common theme among employers regardless of the actuarial discipline. As a senior recruiter from a leading consulting firm points out, the most coveted actuarial candidates are those who combine all the skill sets of the contemporary business person and entrepreneur. That is, strong conceptual, communication and leadership skills to go along with the analytical focus. Mainframe experience for the specific needs of informational organizations and others is extremely relevant, according to a top–level staffer.

There will always be a need for actuaries more focused on the technical aspects of job responsibilities. They may be pure actuarial programmers or mathematical modelers, for example.

Milkint: Employers are looking for high impact players. They want leaders—leaders who can step in and innovate, build and re–vamp; leaders who understand P&L and the competition and can leverage that knowledge to their organization's advantage; leaders who can mentor and coach teams; leaders who offer a strategic outlook and can go beyond the "To Do" list to develop growth initiatives and strategic planning.

There is a hunger for communicators. Employers desire actuaries who can make insightful presentations that are clear and understandable to a broad non–actuarial audience. Skill sets that are in high demand in today's marketplace include:

  • Risk management/enterprise risk management
  • Investment modeling/portfolio management
  • Knowledge management and enterprise content management
  • Product management
  • Marketing strategy
  • Financial management in relation to Sarbanes–Oxley internal controls and internal audit support

Robertson: Employees are seeking actuaries with strong communication skills, new business development skills, ability to contribute to the strategic direction of company and the ability to offer solutions to challenges in the market, for both employers and clients.

The Actuary: How has the career focus changed over the years? Do employers now expect actuaries to "wear many hats?"

Bertsch: Yes, actuaries are no longer looked upon to only compile data and conduct trend analysis and experience studies. Today, actuaries must be able to communicate their findings to other departments, upper management and clients. They need to take an active role, which contributes to the overall growth of a company.

Jacobsen: When I began recruiting in 1988, actuaries were in very traditional roles. There wasn't much interfacing with senior management, only at the higher levels. Actuaries were generally in a main actuarial area and not working within business units. That has changed significantly—the overall industry is demanding that actuaries wear many hats. Actuaries are now working with many business partners and have to be flexible in their approaches, yet still be able to stand their ground.

Kaye: Yes, employers are no longer looking for just back–room technical people. Employers are looking to hire actuaries—and this is true for all levels—that are board presentable. Actuaries must also have technical expertise in addition to excellent leadership, communication and interpersonal skills. Actuaries are required to manage up as well as down the organization and communicate to non–actuaries in all the adjacent divisions of a company.

Klarman: Actuarial careers today can encompass positions that are very broad ranging in scope, from analysts to top tier leaders. In a consulting environment for instance, a lead actuary is in a way running his or her own business within the structure of the firm. As well as providing actuarial skills, they are accountable to their clients for giving great advice and steering the ship to a certain extent. They are accountable to the firm for a profitable client relationship. The consultants' varied responsibilities can range from involvement in the hiring process for their own teams, as well as input to others, and providing executive compensation consulting to client companies.

On the company side, actuaries may don hats to manage, product develop, price, market, teach and disseminate information. They fill officer roles extending to CFO or CEO to help decide the direction and philosophy of the company going forward.

Milkint: The actuarial career focus has always been rooted in a strong technical foundation, and that has not changed. However, today that focus has become more multidimensional. An emphasis is now placed on overall business knowledge, communication strength and the value an actuary can add to an organization.

The profession's challenge is to balance the need for broadening its reach, while maintaining the technical integrity of the field, which is a crucial career differentiator in the market. The actuarial credentials remain valuable and revered. It is a terrific starting point and can be an excellent door opener to build upon.

It is true that actuaries are called upon to wear a multitude of hats: technical resource and advisor; coach, teacher and mentor; facilitator; problem–solver; business strategist and product champion, just to name a few. The ability to manage these multiple roles and priorities is critical for success today.

The Actuary: What advice do you have for the actuary who is looking to make a move to the international circuit so to speak?

Hayes: The United States is the best paying market in the world. International experience is always good to have in a long time career; most actuaries work three to five years on international jobs and then return to the USA.

Jacobsen: Be absolutely committed to doing so; it is often a three– to five–year commitment. Understand that you may not receive equal compensation. Some expatriate packages are quite large, but many more are not and some companies don't offer any at all. Lifestyle and professional experience are generally the driving factors in wanting to make a move, but these have to be stronger considerations than compensation for a successful move. Foreign language skills for the particular country of interest are obviously a big plus.

Kaye: Learn to speak other languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, etc. Be willing to travel, live abroad and return to one's native country as a National (fewer companies are willing to pay expatriate packages). It's equally important to be open to lower and different pay scales.

Klarman: I would say go for it—the opportunities are available. Many actuaries will find the international sector quite invigorating and rewarding if they enjoy travel and living in other cultures. Of course, foreign language skills can be very helpful. For those who want to allocate just a portion of their careers to international work, having it on a resume immediately adds value and portrays a multi–faceted individual.

Milkint: Possessing foreign language skills is a huge advantage. Be willing to be flexible, open to the idea of accepting an overseas assignment in a non–prime location in order to "pay your dues" and gain true international experience. An attitude that speaks to adaptability—especially cultural adaptability—is also key. Do your research and demonstrate and share your ability to make the transition effectively.

Robertson: When considering an overseas move, it is important to look at your marketability in terms of the local market and the local supply of candidates. In most instances, companies want local talent with local experience, and only look overseas for skills that are hard to find at home. So, the earlier you can research the skills that are needed in your chosen destination, the sooner you can start ensuring that your CV contains the right experience and also "demonstrates" those all important non–technical skills (e.g., business development, local languages). Issues such as marketability, long distance interviews, relocation and salaries are all very different when considering an overseas move, so seeking advice from an experienced source is important.

The Actuary: Are many actuaries moving to non–traditional roles, e.g., risk management, stock analysis, business leadership, etc.?

Bertsch: A small percentage of actuaries are moving into non–traditional roles.

Hayes: Yes. Once insurers learn how to tap the mid–market effectively, the industry will grow tremendously and products will diversify. Basic protection products, of the type being sold in the worksite channels, will thrive. Once again, actuaries' jobs will be more focused on claim, expense and lapse risks rather than assets.

Jacobsen: Some actuaries are moving to non–traditional roles, but it isn't happening as quickly as we would have thought five to seven years ago. In terms of business leadership, the movement is progressing nicely.

Kaye: There aren't too many actuaries moving into non–traditional roles due to the limited number of positions in those areas today. Of those listed, risk management is the most popular as more and more companies are establishing this type of position/department.

During the boom years of the mid to late 1990s, there were more "non–traditional" opportunities actuaries gravitated to. However, when those positions were eliminated—like many positions were during the downsizings in the early 2000s—these actuaries who ventured out of the actuarial profession's mainstream found themselves unemployed. I must point out that it has been difficult for many of those "non–traditional" actuaries to replace their new line of work or find a comparable position back in the actuarial mainstream. There are actuaries who have had to move to less desirable parts of the country to just find a position; others had to take reduced compensation and begin again, if they were lucky; and some others are still looking to replace what they were doing five years ago, before they ventured out.

Over the years, the best way for "non–traditional" actuarial positions to become a more secure career venue for actuaries is for actuarial consultants to work with these employers first. Actuarial consultants have the expertise and the communication skills to "sell" the actuarial profession. We saw this with HMOs. Years ago, HMOs did not hire actuaries. Actuarial consultants convinced these HMOs that conducting business without actuarial expertise was risky to their financial stability. When their consulting bills become too exorbitant, these HMOs decided to hire their first in–house actuary to be more cost effective while continuing to work with these consultants. It is a progression that eventually leads to a second and a third actuary and the beginning of a new work place for actuaries.

Klarman: Many non–traditional positions are maturing into what are becoming traditional endeavors. Risk management and investment analysis are examples of sectors that have become mainstays of many traditional actuarial employers. Many insurance company actuarial student programs include these areas as a necessary rotation. Similarly, as consulting firms broaden their scope of services, it is reflected in their traditional professional development programs as well.

Milkint: Actuaries are moving into these non–traditional roles at a steadier pace, but the success stories are still limited and not as plentiful as we, actuarial champions, would like. Mergers and acquisitions and increasing legislative controls and regulations have created new opportunities for Actuaries and their keen instincts and analytical savvy. Actuaries today have become much more than technically acute professionals; they are strategic leaders, marketers and problem solvers.

The Actuary: Due to a wide variety of influences ranging from regulatory changes to market globalization, traditional employers are facing increasingly complex risks, requiring expert advice on enterprise–wide risk management. Who do employers look to for this expertise?

Bertsch: Actuaries who are in the risk management business and know the market.

Jacobsen: We have certainly seen an increase in hiring of chief risk officers. Some of these clients do hire these risk officers from the actuarial ranks, but as the natural career progression of actuaries whose breadth and depth of knowledge about the risks these firms face is clearly evident. In looking at the qualifications of non–actuaries in some of these roles, they have included MBA, CPCU, ARM, PhD, and myriad other finance, risk and quantitative training.

Kaye: They look for sharp individuals who are smart, have the business acumen, strategic mindset, market knowledge, financial expertise and insurance product knowledge who can combine all the different factors needed to evaluate the financial risk, the product risk, the underwriting risk, the investment risk, etc. Many companies are looking for very senior actuaries to fill these positions. Some who have had risk management experience, and others who can translate their experience and introduce cutting edge analytics to understand the risk drivers and design plans to reduce adverse impact on net income.

Some of these positions are not being filled by actuaries, but rather by investment professionals and CFAs. However, companies are now seeing the need to integrate the actuarial knowledge and skill set into these roles for a more global approach to their business risk. After all, the insurance industry was built on the basis of accepting risk and managing it for a profit, exactly for which actuaries have been trained to do.

Klarman: Experienced risk managers who keep up to date with all these variables and contingencies are the choice. Risk management is a dynamic, ongoing process—traditional employers recognize this and seek managers who can think on the run and make specific recommendations based on their analysis. Entrepreneurial, conceptual and presentation skills are very important to the implementation process.

Milkint: Employers will consider actuaries for these roles, but they also look towards non–actuaries. Sophisticated insurers, financial services firms and banking entities will gravitate to financial engineers, risk managers and analysts, quantitative/stochastic modelers, asset liability managers and computational finance experts.

Robertson: They certainly do look to actuaries, but only if the actuary can contribute on a wide range of fronts, not only in analytical terms.

The Actuary: What professional advice do you have for actuaries seeking new employment opportunities? How can they be more marketable?

Bertsch: A good resume' outlining highlights of his/her career and credentials such as FSA, FCA, MAAA. Actuaries need to be well rounded with a proven track record of accomplishments.

Hayes: The big companies/consulting firms have a surplus of talent in actuaries. So the name of the game at certain times in a career should be over, up and out, unless actuaries get into top management. In general, small– to medium–sized companies pay more to actuaries than large ones. Reinsurance is very high paying. And starting your own consulting firm or joining a small one is another avenue to higher earnings. Marketability depends on how well you have managed changes throughout your career. In some jobs, companies/firms and states, the pay is better than in others. Experienced actuaries and experienced recruiters know how this plays out around the country. Working with an experienced recruiter can make a big difference in a job search.

Jacobsen: Explore all of your options that make sense—one never knows what may come of it. At the same time though, it is important to know and keep in mind what your next step is. An actuary can be more marketable if he or she has had an upward trajectory in his/her career, i.e. fast and/or steady exam progress, visibility, logical decision making, a demonstrated continued interest in learning, a clear understanding and knowledge of his/her work and a true interest in what he or she does.

Kaye: In addition to contacting an executive recruiter who specializes in placing actuaries, you must first prepare a well–written resume, one that markets your skill sets and strengths. Do not rely on following a resume template. Resumes should reflect you, and so all resumes may look as different as the people they are describing.

Next, you must prepare for the job interview. Not only must you become familiar with the company and research their Web site, but you must also prepare your answers to interview questions and then practice them. There are ways to try and figure out the types of questions hiring mangers and human resource people will ask you on an interview. Prepare those answers ahead of time; think of those examples and jot them down succinctly, commit to memory and practice. If you think you are an excellent communicator, then you want to make sure you can articulate and market yourself properly. Looking for a job is a job, and do not short change the work you put into finding one.

Klarman: Some major ingredients involved in a successful actuarial career are attaining actuarial credentials with a strong exam success rate, and combining expertise, experience, and quality human factors to contribute to organizations and clients in a meaningful way. That being said, at the end of the day, timing is so very important also. The actuarial job market today offers wonderful opportunities within world–class dynamic organizations. Obviously, deciding whether to change jobs and timing a move properly is essential as you consider fresh opportunities, career goals and geographic preferences.

To be more marketable, work with an experienced, professional actuarial recruiter who knows how to market you as well as your skill set. They should be experienced in helping you in every aspect of the process. Seek a recruiter who regularly takes the pulse of the marketplace, and possesses relationships where you may want to work. Work with someone that you are comfortable with. A positive, professional relationship with the right recruiter can last for years and be extremely valuable to your career.

Milkint: Think of yourself as the CEO of your own company, "Me, Inc." Discover your brand: what you stand for, what your advantages and disadvantages are, what makes you marketable/sellable and what you can add to an organization. Then brand yourself; let your brand shine through in everything you do, including your resume and networking opportunities, as well as in your current job responsibilities.

Take control of your career. A free agent mentality is very appropriate. Remember your career is a series of building blocks.

To become more marketable:

  • Refine your presentation: your conversation style and your image.
  • Elicit feedback from others to help you become more effective and memorable.
  • Tell your story; use success stories to illustrate the value you can add to a company based on your past achievements.
  • Practice answering behavioral interview questions such as, "Tell me about a time when you inspired trust and loyalty in a group with whom you worked." Or, "Share the details about a tough decision you had to make and what made it tough."
  • Unmask. In today's marketplace, future employers are more than ever concerned with uncovering the CORE/personal ethics of a potential employee. Let a future employer understand your character—in other words, what drives you. Share your outlook—what your perspectives, approach and style are. Describe your relationships—what they are like and what is important to you. Tell them what you expect of yourself, your employer and your colleagues.

Robertson: Make sure you have the non–technical skills that are so in demand and have a proven track record of successfully using these skills in your working experience. It's that simple and that complex.

Note: You can find Part I of this article in the October 2004 issue of The Actuary.