By Carlos Fuentes
Dave Spencer has been an actuarial recruiter for 36 years. He started his career working for a corporate office of management recruiters and then went independent in 2000. Dave is familiar with the evolution of the education system, the profession and the evolving actuarial environment. In this interview, Dave will share with our readers the perspective of the recruiter whose goals are to: (i) help candidates find a rewarding position and (ii) search for suitable candidates in response to a company’s recruiting assignment.
Dave, thank you for taking the time to share your perspective about actuaries and the actuarial profession.
- Can you tell us how you became interested in working as an actuarial recruiter?
I came to recruiting in perhaps an unusual way. I sold a successful retail business because I had a 1-year-old at home, was working 65-plus hours per week, and wanted to be home more. I went to some kind of employment firm looking for assistance in finding a new job because all the employers I approached were leery of hiring someone who had been self-employed for eight years. They said, and I quote, "We 99 percent guarantee you a great position" as long as I was willing to pay a significant amount of money. (Really? I thought … 99 percent is not a guarantee.) I walked out. Days later, I saw an ad placed by a recruiting firm. I figured I should at least investigate this firm—the biggest of its type at that time and one that did not ask for an upfront fee from job seekers. Three interviews later, I was hired. Initially, I was looking at all sorts of openings and working with a variety of professions. About three months later, a new employee brought the actuarial profession to the attention of management. She was picking up openings right and left but couldn't fill any of them. She was let go, but my supervisor started trying to work her "desk." He asked me to help him find candidates. I took to it like a duck to water. I have a very analytical mind; math was my strong suit in school. I found that many of the actuaries seemed to think and process information the way that I did. So, I spoke to them the way I want to be spoken to. I want to be provided with factual information, the hype kept to a minimum, and be allowed to make up my own mind rather than being sold to. And I'm still at it 36 years later. (I hope I'm still viewed that way.)
- How are actuaries different today from what they were 36 years ago? What are the typical key requirements of employers, and have they changed over time? If so, how?
I don't think the word “typical” can be applied, because the field is so diverse and the needs also diverse. If there are similar openings, the requirements may be similar but not always identical. However, I can address how they have changed. When I started my recruiting career, there weren't enough actuaries to fill all the openings. Many times, employers would simply ask for an actuary, maybe with a certain amount of experience. But you could place a casualty actuary in a life position, a pension actuary in a health position. The key question was whether the candidate was willing to relocate. Entry-level students used to have multiple offers. Companies gladly paid recruiting fees for entry-level candidates—all the more so when the computer/internet segment was taking off—while at the same time targeting potential future actuaries.
Almost every employer, no matter what the level or duties, is looking for someone with strong communication skills. And many of the younger actuaries these days (early 30s down) are not as strong as employers would like them to be. I've heard this from many hiring authorities and HR people. May I be allowed to suggest that extemporaneous speaking, or something similar, be incorporated as part of the core curriculum for actuarial science, even if simply on a pass/fail basis.
- How has technology impacted actuaries?
I think this is best answered by actuaries. All I feel comfortable saying is that from my perspective as a recruiter, as technology has changed, it makes it harder for many seasoned actuaries to remain as valuable as they once were, since most are not actively updating their technical skills. In some cases, if an employer is going to switch to, let's say GGY AXIS, they may have no interest in someone that is expert in Prophet. And artificial intelligence is going to be a factor. (There are multiple articles related to this.)
One more thought … Technology now allows people telecommuting to work from home. This has led to a huge increase in actuaries looking for remote jobs. On the one hand, many employers could fill some of their openings if they embraced this concept. On the other, it can be difficult to manage scattered staff. The old phrase “out of sight, out of mind” can sometimes apply—and impact career advancement. Some (not all) feel their career growth has been hurt by not being in the primary workplace on a regular basis.
- How has the actuarial employment market changed?
The number of actuaries has grown tremendously. I checked with the SOA and was told there are roughly 30,000 members. But in the 1992 directory that I still have, there were about 13,000. At the same time, compensation has increased. When I started as a recruiter in 1983, the average pay for an entry-level person was around $15,000-$16,000 (good pay back then), equivalent to around $39,000 in today's numbers. Entry-level salaries now are well above that figure. New fellows were getting $40K, equivalent to $104K today. But this growth has, in a way, caused frustration for many young people. There has been significant growth in the number of actuarial science programs offered by universities. The salaries look good, the demand is still strong, but the number of graduates far exceeds the number of openings. It is not unusual to find bright young people who have passed multiple SOA exams—with strong GPAs, with actuarial internships under their belts—that can't break into the field.
- Is there a common thread in the kind of actuaries employers desire to hire and retain? Let’s take for granted technical skills.
The universal answer is communication skills. But I can also talk about difficult searches. There are some locations almost everybody has no interest in moving to. If they do, employers find it difficult retaining them because these employees have no reason to settle in for the long haul. This means that some employers have to contend with location and competition. On the other hand, I've seen HR people being so leery about hiring nonlocal employees that they manage to filter out even those who have a legitimate long-term interest in the job.
- Have you seen actuaries venturing into nontraditional areas, such as policy modeling or Wall Street investments? If so, what are the skills actuaries have that make them successful? If no, why do you think this is the case? What can actuaries do to break in to nontraditional roles?
Well over 20 years ago, the SOA took a look at this. I was one of many people the SOA interviewed. The purpose was to promote the profession and help actuaries make the transition into nontraditional roles. I never saw the results. But I remember one of the obstacles. Pay. It should not be a surprise to you or anyone reading this article that the actuarial profession is well compensated. So, although many have skills that could transition, most are not open to a smaller paycheck. But, yes, I have seen some people transition, and sometimes to better-paying jobs, but not nearly as many as one would hope.
Let me add that with the growth in data analytics, I presume that more will make a transition. The pay is becoming more competitive as the number of open positions rises. I sense that data analytics may prove to be competitive for talent the way the dot.com field was some years ago. It would be easier to address why some of them have not been able to transition, but that would be a long conversation.
- What are the areas that candidates should strengthen to better market themselves and to become more valuable employees?
That question isn't as easy to answer as you might think, because "the areas" change over time. Currently, I see more requests for SQL, SAS, excellent spreadsheet skills. Perhaps a specific programming language such as Python or R. But what one company will value, another company could care less about. As technology, artificial intelligence and analytics evolve, so will the needs of employers. Of course, this is all in addition to the specific actuarial skill set needed for a particular job.
Dave Spencer is an independent actuarial recruiter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carlos Fuentes, FSA, MAAA, is president at Axiom Actuarial Consulting. He can be reached at email@example.com.