Confessions of an Education Volunteer
Confessions of an Education Volunteer
By Peter Hayes
I REMEMBER WHEN I got hooked. It was nearly 20 years ago in a bar in Florida, with cheap beer and heaping bowls of shrimp, and absolutely fabulous company, none of whom I really knew and all of whom made me feel part of a team that had done something very special. I had been introduced to the process about six months earlier, and this little place on the beach at St. Pete's was the culmination, at least in terms of my role at the time.
The team came from all over. Big cities, small cities, big firms, small firms, Americans, Canadians ... and what we shared was a passion to give something back to our chosen profession by creating the very best actuarial exam ever made. Not that we necessarily thought about it that way, way back when. More likely we were rookies recruited by veterans of a few years, lured by vague references to what you had to do and (the real lure ...) the opportunity to go someplace nice every year to grade papers.
We had to learn the syllabus–all of it–and, in retrospect, had we realized the relationships that existed from one section of the syllabus to another, and even from reading to reading, when we were studying for the exam as lowly students, we'd have made a 10. I can tell you, though, that viewing the syllabus "holistically" as a question writer, and then crafting questions that would require a student to cognitively assimilate various parts of that syllabus (versus regurgitating it!) if they wanted to demonstrate they knew the stuff well enough to be called an actuary, was (and still is) the best Continuing Professional Development ever.
We were partnered with people much older (hey, if they got their FSA before I did–at 30–they had to be old!) who clearly knew the ropes, and we wrote questions together. They were pristine–the most perfect questions for a written answer fellowship exam ever conceived. But we passed them on to people in higher positions on the Examination totem pole than us, and they changed them! It was something I grumbled about session after session: did these "reviewers" who took our questions and those of every other pair of question writers and put the exam together, not appreciate the brilliance of the question we had prepared? Why had they combined our perfect question with somebody else's (clearly less-perfect) question? Or why had they asked us to go back to the drawing board, making suggestions with respect to how our perfection could be improved upon?
Years later, having toiled as a writer of brilliant questions session after session, I guess I had complained enough about the short-sightedness of the reviewers (who kept asking that the brilliance be amended in some kind of a way) that I was asked to join the dark side and become one–a dreaded reviewer with a fancy name called vice chair. I had no idea what I was in for.
I should perhaps mention that my track, and therefore the exams I worked on, was retirement. I'd like to say that the retirement group was a different breed, but I think the bunch that put together the Individual Life exams, or the Group & Health exams, or the Finance & Investment exams, could all say the same thing. Each has its own distinct personality, and although we're all actuaries it's an observation that I've always found kind of fascinating. I think we all had fun, and the networking has, over the years, been absolutely phenomenal. I have gotten to know people–fellow actuaries–all over North America that I still talk to and run into from time to time, some as frequently as a few times a year, and some every few years. I would not have met a single one of them had it not been for joining the Education Committee.
Don't get me wrong. As much as we might have had fun, it only came after hard work and some long hours, and learning those disciplines is not a bad outcome either. You work hard as a question writer, but, at least on a fellowship exam, the time commitment is fairly compressed. That changes with a move to the dark side, and although I have now had the privilege (and it has truly been a privilege) to hold almost every position within Education, I will forever maintain that vice chair–the first step past question writer–is both the toughest and most rewarding.
The vice chair takes the exam from start to finish. Every track does it a bit different, but the VC herds the cats, gathers the questions, coordinates the feedback, keeps the egos in check, convinces people to give a little extra when it's necessary to do so and is generally the person in the process that needs the biggest shoulders. You might ask what's rewarding about that? Well ... managing meetings, managing people, discovering tolerance for differing views, developing organizational skills, learning to voice an opinion in a room of very bright people, being humbled by the dedication of the SOA's paid staff (which is unbelievable!) and of fellow volunteers, all of whom are working towards the same objective. I could go on, but one of the less-acknowledged benefits to employers of allowing actuaries to serve the profession through participation on the Education Committee is that it's a pretty inexpensive way to develop a lot of what are, ultimately, leadership skills.
Dealing with adversity is part of what you learn, too. The timelines for putting together exams are extremely tight in the sense that there is not much give at each stage of the process. The dates exams are administered are cast in stone years in advance, and having an exam booklet to place under a student's nose is an immovable object. Getting that booklet ready can be an adventure: on a fellowship exam, you want questions whose answers will draw from various parts of the syllabus without straying outside any part of it, and I have fond memories of the contortions we sometimes went through to set a question that would elicit the proper response from candidates without leading them directly to what that response should be. Every single word becomes important, and beauty to one person can be a cause for slamming chairs and tables to another.
I've sat through sessions of table slamming and raised voices, and it's indicative of the passion that people bring to trying to create exams that will allow the high standards of the profession to be maintained and enhanced. Despite the differences of opinion, that passion is focused entirely on producing an exceptional exam, and when it's done and put to bed there is a collective pride in what has been accomplished. Did I mention the benefit of learning to contribute in a team environment?
You get close to the other members of your team as you pass through the various stages of the Education Committee. Those of us that have stayed on for awhile have watched each others' kids grow up, have shared their latest accomplishments, hopes and dreams as we've shared a nice meal; we've shared birthday celebrations when they've coincided with grading or exam prep meetings; and we've shared tragedy. By far the lowest point in my 20 years was the death through cancer of Judy Anderson, a staff fellow at the SOA who touched an enormous number of people through a dedication and passion that most of us can only wish we had. Most actuaries will never know of her contribution, yet the profession is infinitely better off because of it.
I alluded earlier to "the lure" of serving on the Education Committee being the opportunity to give something back to the profession ... oh, and did we mention the little trip to grade exams? I am an unabashed supporter of the importance of having a little carrot, or a little perk, to offer to people who are prepared to volunteer their time. Central Grading (and other meetings in the process, but central grading is the big one) provides that carrot to many of the Education volunteers, and over the years I have attended meetings all over the United States and Canada. I have brought my family to many, making it a mini-vacation, and my kids (now grown) have had the chance to see places like the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains and Disney, and to see cities everywhere that they would never otherwise have seen.
My overall experience has been nothing but positive. That's not the same as saying the ride has always been smooth–it hasn't–but I strongly believe that my time on Education has been mutually beneficial to both the SOA and to me. I think I have given something back to my profession, but I am also cognizant of what I have received in return: the opportunity to travel has been a bonus, but more important have been the opportunities to develop people skills, communication skills, leadership skills, to contribute to a common goal as part of a team, to meet and get to know hundreds of wonderful people, and, of course, to maintain a leading-edge touch with (in my case) the phenomenal amount of change that has occurred in the pension and retirement field, in particular, and the actuarial profession in general, over the past 20 years. It has been, as I noted earlier, the very best source of continuing professional development.
I would recommend it to anyone, and I'd strongly encourage new actuaries to get involved. To both you and your employers, I can guarantee a worthwhile experience. The giving is not just one way, and the benefits you will receive are tangible. Why not give it a try?
Peter Hayes, FSA, FCIA, is a principal with Eckler Ltd. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was not your typical education and examination volunteer. Four years after obtaining my FSA, I had three kids and a more than full-time job, and giving some time back to the SOA was the furthest thing from my mind.
Fast forward 10 years–the kids were reasonably independent, the job was under control, and I was reluctantly dragged onto an exam committee by a friend who was desperate for new blood. The two questions that I wrote made it onto that year's exam, and I was hooked. I became an exam vice chair the next year, with responsibility for my own committee, and I never looked back. Fifteen years later I'm still heavily involved with the education committees. My education committee experience led me to run for the SOA Board where I served for five years, and that in turn has led to service on a wide variety of SOA committees and task forces.
Why would I want to do all this?
- Leadership skills–I have gained valuable experience in working with others, particularly how to have productive and respectful conversations that lead to mutually acceptable solutions.
- Communication skills–I've had numerous opportunities to present before groups of various sizes. I've improved my ability to present ideas concisely and persuasively in committee sessions, a skill that translates well into business settings.
- Continuing education–being a long-term education volunteer has made it convenient to keep myself current with new developments in my field of practice.
- Networking/interaction with other actuaries–my volunteer work has brought me into contact with some of the top actuaries in the industry. I've made both professional contacts and lasting friendships.
- Satisfaction–I enjoy the varied volunteer activities, which utilize different skills than the ones I employ in my day-to-day work. And I feel that I make a valuable contribution which is appreciated by the staff and volunteers.
At a grading meeting I was impressed to see so many volunteers dedicated to make sure that candidates who deserved to pass would pass. Their struggle to decipher the poor handwriting of some candidates to make sure that they got all the credits they deserve also showed the dedication of the graders.
What keeps me involved? First, it is the volunteers and SOA staff! The enthusiasm and commitment of all the people involved in education is amazing! Second, the networking opportunities are outstanding.
Woody Allen purportedly said "90 percent of life is showing up." When you show up (and contribute) as an education volunteer the reward is ever more opportunities to show up. Peter Hayes showed up his way through the formal hierarchy all the way to the top. I took a more circuitous path: consultant to the graduation, demography and mortality table construction exams; member of the Future Education Methods Implementation Task Force (we love long names); co-creator of Intensive Seminar 152; member of the Design Team (and then frequent facilitator) for Course 7; Board of Governors vice-president for education; co-chair of the 2005 education redesign; academic partner to the education executive committee; and now all that volunteering has culminated in a paid position as staff education actuary for the SOA. The growth opportunity I'll remember most is working with Steve Eadie at every SOA Board meeting to get the 28 Board members to come to agreement on the next pieces of the 2005 Redesign. And, if you wonder why the exams are lettered and not numbered, just ask me.