By Carlos Fuentes
This is the last in a series of interviews to actuaries with academic careers. Our featured interviewee, Filadefo León Cázares, is the first international actuary among the academics we have interviewed. Filadelfo holds a Bachelor’s degree in actuarial science from the National University of Mexico, a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Guadalajara and a PhD in Public Administration from the University of North Texas. Before becoming full-time researcher and professor at the Department of Quantitative Methods and Fiscal Studies at the University of Guadalajara he held actuarial posts at the Bank of Mexico and the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (loosely equivalent to the Social Security Administration).
- Please tell us what made you decide to become an actuary.
- I enjoyed math in high school, but I didn’t want to become a mathematician or engineer. One day, while speaking with a friend about our uncertain professional future, he mentioned that during a trip to Mexico City he met an actuary. He then more or less described what actuaries do and, equally important, how much they can make. This convinced me to give it a try. After high school graduation I headed to the School of Sciences at the National University of Mexico to become an actuary. 1 In retrospect, this has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
- Twenty Mexican universities have actuarial programs (see here), 12 of them are located in the greater Mexico City area and 11 are public. I recently met with professors, students and alumni of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México to talk about the actuarial profession. Despite the fact that the actuarial school has only a few full time professors and most students travel very long distances to attend classes, I noticed a high degree of motivation among students that is perhaps partially responsible for their good preparation. Many students don’t graduate (see editor’s note) because they get job offers in their last year of college. Companies that hire near-graduate actuaries state that the students already possess a strong technical background and that they are fast learners, ready to work. Although this is probably true, I believe that many of these students could become more effective if they spend time honing their written and oral communication skills and completing their degrees. The best time to do so is while at college because once employed, work tends to absorb them completely. The fact that many students start working at a very early age, and that the concept of professional apprenticeship (basically what actuaries and CPAs do in the U.S. as they take exams while working) is foreign to Mexican companies, explains in part why very few Mexican actuaries take the SOA exams. 2 More important, perhaps, is the fact that non-Mexican designations are of relatively little value in Mexico due to regulatory entry barriers to the profession.
- Many subjects have been useful in my career, from math (calculus, algebra, probability) to actuarial math, and not only for their practical relevance, but also because they helped sharpen my analytical thinking and the way I approach problems.
- Yes, quite a bit. As mentioned above, you not only gain technical knowledge, but also learn how to approach problems and be persistent in the face of difficulty.
- Their role in the public and private sectors is ample although concentrated in the traditional area of insurance. Some actuaries have succeeded in both sectors and gone beyond, such as the current senator and former Secretary of Hacienda y Crédito Público (the appointed officer responsible for taxation and the federal budget), Ernesto Cordero Arroyo.
- The basic formation is more or less the same, although subject to fads that tend to disappear after a few years. However, there have been many technological advances, including increased computing power, that allow actuaries to become more productive. When I started my career, computers used floppy disks (5¼”and 31/2”) with limited storage capacities and hard disks with only 20MB. Furthermore, at 256 KB, for today’s standards, RAM was puny. To tackle many practical problems, we had to split them into small components and write programs to piece them together. Today, most of these projects can be carried out with almost any computer. I must point out, however, that computer power is no substitute for actuarial expertise.
- It is good. As a matter of fact, actuaries are among the best paid professionals in the country for reasons such as their ability to analyze data and think critically. Furthermore, a bachelor’s degree in actuarial science is a good base for further academic study in many areas such as economics and administration. See here and here. Compare these rankings with the rankings of U.S. professions. You’ll find some surprises.
- Insurance, finance, banking and work in the public sector in general, but there are others such as risk management.
- Demand exceeds supply. This is good in general but, as I mentioned above, it results in a large number of students never graduating because they get job offers in their last year of college.
- I think that actuaries should improve their oral and written communication skills and become proficient in English.
- There are many books I could recommend but my advice is to do your own search and then chose what you find interesting.
Filadelfo León Cázares can be reached at email@example.com
1 Editor’s note: In Mexico, as in most non-English speaking countries, the actuarial designation is conferred after completing a bachelor’s degree. In addition to the course work, students are required to perform “social service” (work as an intern, typically for free) and, depending on the university, prepare and defend a dissertation whose level of complexity ranges from trivial to difficult. Some universities also require that the students approve language examinations, typically two, at a basic translation level. Those who don’t complete all the requirements—and many don’t— receive a certificate of “pesante,” roughly equivalent to “near graduate.”
2 Working hours in Mexico are typically longer and in some cases much longer than in the U.S. Furthermore, lunch time, which takes place around 3:00 PM, tends to split the day into two long halves.