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Reflections of One Actuary’s Journey through the Actuarial Maze

 By Rick Tash, FSA, MAAA of Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield

 As a college student graduating in the late 1970’s, I had to make a decision as to what career to pursue.  A lot of people offered advice, but ultimately it was my decision.  I was a Math/Statistics major at the time and wondered what opportunities I had outside of teaching.  A friend of mine had taken some exams called “Actuarial Exams”.  I had no idea what they were, but I had nothing to lose by taking them.  I found out that passing the exams would almost guarantee employment.  I passed the first two exams and found myself working in a Life Insurance Company.  I didn’t necessarily want to limit my options at the time and felt I could also try computer programming.  After working in Life Insurance for a year, I gave programming a try and ultimately found myself back in the actuarial field.

 Why did I switch back?  There were a number of reasons.  I liked trying to model and project expected future events.  What I discovered was that the actuary’s work starts where the programmer’s work leaves off.  What the actuary does is make sense of the data in addition to gathering  and understanding the data.  Some of these activities overlap with those of computer programmers.  Often it is the actuary who is requesting work of programmers to gather data, set up data warehouses, websites, etc.  What was key for me was that I got to make many independent decisions.

 At the time as well, I could see that the actuarial career had a well defined path which was to pass the Actuarial exams in pursuit of the Fellowship designation.  By attaining this goal, the actuary becomes a valuable asset to a company whether it be an insurance company, consulting firm, or whomever they work for.  To be rewarded for this special expertise and knowledge, it was clear to me that the salaries of top actuaries far exceeded those of computer programmers.  I continued to pursue the actuarial exams which I fortunately was able to complete while working as an actuary.

 Why I think I made the correct decision is due to the variety of projects and the breadth of knowledge I have gained over the years.  I don’t feel constrained by hardware or software limitations, but rather through my own creativity and ingenuity.  Through the exam process and work experience, I have learned enough to discuss issues intelligently with accountants, lawyers, computer programmers, marketing and sales units, government regulators, administrative assistants, and senior management.  In other words, we are the translators of the insurance industry able to discuss matters with our audience in their own terms.  That is why the actuaries perform such an integral role for an insurance company.

 What kind of people make successful actuaries?  I personally don’t believe a Math degree is the essential ingredient.  I worked for a chief actuary once who never graduated college and still attained his Fellowship.  My current boss has a degree in Art.  What is important is how well an individual can see a problem and their approach for solving them.  To get through the exams, it is partly skill and partly a time management endeavor.  The time management part is how to best get through an exam and maximize your point total to give you the best chance of passing.  This also involves how well you prepare for the exams and how disciplined and motivated you become to finish all exams.  The process is not too different from many work situations that may be encountered.

 The actuarial profession is commonly divided into several different paths.  The main ones are life, health, pension, and casualty.  Each has their own peculiar issues and techniques developed specific for that discipline.  Within each discipline, an actuary may specialize in product development, valuation of liabilities, finance, data flows, or other responsibilities.  I have known actuaries who have become head of marketing and others who have become head of underwriting.  These are natural extensions of actuarial work although they tend to be less traditional roles.  Some actuaries have made it to the Senior Management level or CEO of their company.  Other industries such as banking and finance are finding benefits to having actuaries on staff as well.

 I would like to conclude by saying that the actuarial profession has been both rewarding and interesting to me.  It has given me a chance to travel a bit, to analyze business problems and see them through to their conclusion, to build and develop computer models, to apply math and technical skills to find business solutions to company problems, and to meet interesting and knowledgeable people. This profession remains interesting to me since there is no boilerplate way of completing tasks, but rather we use our skills to develop answers to pressing issues.  These are the kind of challenges that you could expect if you enter the actuarial profession.  The actuarial profession is ready for you; are you ready for it?