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Reading the Results

Key findings of the SOA 2008 Member and Candidate Survey

By Jacque Kirkwood

The Society of Actuaries Member and Candidate Survey is conducted every three years. The content of the 2008 survey was purposefully similar to the 2002 and 2005 surveys to examine and compare trends over time. More than 6,600 responses were received–5,100 from members and 1,500 from pre-ASA candidates. This article highlights key findings.

Purpose and Process

Kara Clark, FSA, MAAA, managing director of Strategy, was instrumental in managing the survey development and evaluation process. According to Clark, the main drivers behind conducting the survey were to solicit feedback from the members to determine if the SOA is moving in the right direction, to alert the organization to changes in the members' priorities and to evaluate its products and services. In addition, this year's survey will be leveraged as an input into the current strategic planning process.

"We are currently in the process of updating our strategic plan, and this year's survey will help inform and validate the new plan's development," Clark said. "Actually, we conducted the survey a little earlier in the year so that results could be integrated into the timeline for our strategic planning process. In addition, the survey design is based on the organization's balanced scorecard approach. We wanted to validate that we're heading in the right direction with respect to our current strategic plan."

Member and candidate responses to the survey were gathered electronically. The electronic survey allowed for ease of use by survey participants and made data collection efficient. The survey was divided into several categories, such as demographic information, satisfaction, the profession and competing professions. To allow for trending, the majority of the questions were similar to those asked in previous surveys. Where necessary, updates were included to reflect current practice.

"For example, because we now offer the CERA credential, we asked questions in the 2008 survey specific to the CERA that weren't in the 2002 or 2005 surveys," said Clark.

One category covered new questions to assess the member perspective on current strategic initiatives and some other initiatives that are under consideration.

The response rate this year for members was 30 percent and 22 percent for pre-ASA candidates. The survey was sent to all members and to a random selection of one-quarter of pre-ASA candidates. In the past, pre-ASA candidates received a shorter version of the survey. This was the first year that candidates were asked the full set of questions.

"The response rate this year was slightly lower than the last two surveys, but we suspect that was due to conducting the survey in January versus April in order to align with our strategic planning timeline," added Clark. "January tends to be a very busy time of the year for many actuaries who are working in year-end financial reporting. In any event, we feel good about the information we received. The credibility factor is high, and that's important, as we will be using this feedback as one of several key inputs in moving the development of the strategic plan forward."

Along with multiple choice questions, two open-ended questions were asked: 1) What are the two most challenging issues that you will face professionally within the next three years? and 2) Do you have any suggestions for the SOA, either to advance the profession or to better serve your own professional needs? These questions alone yielded over 400 pages of feedback.

Key Findings

What were the most significant findings from the study?

"We tend to focus on the trends in responses over time," Clark said. "One of the most significant results from this year's study is that satisfaction scores have increased across the board. We saw a fairly consistent decrease in satisfaction scores from the members from 2002 to 2005 and now the scores have gone back up again to the 2002 levels, and in some cases, even a bit higher." See Figure 1.

Clark added that on the pre-ASA candidate side, those satisfaction scores went up even more, which is also very encouraging.

"We asked the candidates how well the SOA supports their professional needs and is advancing the actuarial profession, and again those scores rose quite significantly from 2005 to 2008," she said.

"We also asked the pre-ASA candidates how satisfied they were with how the SOA supports them with materials to prepare for exams and with customer service contact throughout the exam process. We don't have a point of comparison for those questions in 2002, as we just started asking them in 2005, but the satisfaction level in both of those areas increased quite a bit. That was especially good news for the organization." See Figure 2.

According to the survey results, member satisfaction levels are driven by three functions: 1) keeping members current in terms of continuing education, communications, networking and related areas; 2) SOA's support of the special interest sections; and 3) maintaining the value of the ASA and FSA credentials in the marketplace.

"These were the same primary drivers that were found in the 2005 survey," noted Clark. "Other factors influence satisfaction levels indirectly through their impact on the three primary drivers. These include enhancing the image of the actuary, the service and quality of the SOA staff and practical and theoretical research. In addition, this year, another indirect driver of satisfaction levels was the restructuring of the education system.

"We also saw an improvement in members' perceived level of satisfaction," she said. "Respondents were asked if they are more or less satisfied than in the past. Sometimes people will say that things are improving even though overall satisfaction scores stay the same. So there's often a disconnect between asking "how satisfied are you" and "do you think things are better?" But in this case, not only did respondents feel there was indeed an improvement, but that perception was reflected in the higher satisfaction scores overall."

There were some interesting findings with regard to competing professions, such as accountants, economists, investment professionals and related disciplines. Survey responses indicated that members perceive that the competition gap is narrowing. For example, in 2005, 40 percent of the members said accountants compete with actuaries for employment; in 2008, that figure dropped to 31 percent.

With the exception of investment professionals–included for the first time in the 2008 survey–and statisticians, a decline in competition was seen across the board. Another interesting finding is that 27 percent of members and candidates said that none of these professions compete with actuaries for employment in their field of work. This data point increased from 20 percent in 2005. Respondents had the option to name other disciplines with whom they compete, and yet an increasing percentage elected to say they do not compete with any others. These results seem to indicate that a growing number of actuaries perceive that their skills are unique within their particular field of work. See Figure 3.

On perhaps a related note, the survey also yielded some positive responses with regard to member and candidate perception of the actuarial profession overall.

"Trends indicate that members and candidates alike regard the actuarial profession as having a strong future in the general business environment," said Clark. "Pre-ASA candidates felt even more positively about the future of the profession than did the members. Their scores on this question went from 7.7/10 in 2002 down to 7.4/10 in 2005 and then up to 7.8/10 in 2008. That compares with the members' numbers that were 6.7/10 in 2002 down to 6.3/10 in 2005 and then up to 6.9/10 in 2008."

SOA staff and a volunteer member advisory group are currently reviewing responses to the two open-ended questions referred to earlier in this report. According to Clark, many consider this feedback to be among the most insightful of the survey. The information obtained through this analysis will provide the impetus for some changes and modifications. Preliminary analysis suggests that major themes in the feedback include: the challenge of keeping up with market changes; how members transition and evolve throughout their careers as market conditions change; hiring qualified actuaries; and the impact of the recent redesign on maintaining the standards of the examination system (particularly at the ASA level).

"The data we received from the member and candidate survey is essential in terms of discussing how we're implementing our current strategy, as well as informing and helping validate the direction of the organization as we put together our new strategic plan," Clark said. "Feedback will certainly be used to make changes. We are assessing the key themes in the open-ended comments and will identify areas where we need to dig a little bit deeper to better understand what's driving some of the results. Once that process is complete, we can develop more specific action and/or communications plans to address specific areas of need."

Jacque Kirkwood is a senior communications associate for the Society of Actuaries.