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Actuaries Crunch the Numbers to Solid Careers

Webster's dictionary defines risk as the possibility of loss or injury. Determining the chance of those risks is the job of an actuary.

These days, you can work in a variety of areas as an actuary. While you can no longer count on the career stability of the past, new and lucrative opportunities are available.

Backed by strong mathematical skills and creativity, actuaries use statistics and probability to plan future risk. They use their calculations for life and property insurance policies, employee benefits, a range of financial planning, and even to develop evidence when chosen as expert witnesses in court.

Actuaries may be employed in small and large firms and at major corporations. Or they may work for themselves as consultants.

"Being an actuary is probably one of the best professions in North America," says actuary Bruce MacDonald. He has experience both as a consultant and in the life insurance field.

"The job is well-paid and advancement is usually rapid. There is a fair degree of independence and much respect for co-workers," explains Macdonald.

According to Cheryl Krueger, Chief Actuary of the Society of Actuaries, there are roughly 18,000 actuaries in North America. "Given the small number, there are many opportunities. I'd put them in the hundreds," she says.

Despite some cyclical downturns in actuarial employment, Krueger feels it is, for the most part, a stable industry. She says that actuaries can apply their skills in a variety of risk areas.

MacDonald agrees there are plenty of opportunities and actuaries continue to find new challenges. "Anything that involves both probability and the time value of money is within an actuary's skills."

The labor market is strong. But according to MacDonald, it was even better when he started in the 1950s.

"At one time the [phrase] 'unemployed actuary' was an oxymoron, but it is no longer the case. Consolidations and takeovers within the insurance industry have reduced the number of opportunities in insurance.

"But it has been compensated for by increased opportunities in consulting, government, academia and non-traditional fields -- including banking and financial markets among others," says MacDonald.

Still, the most common place for actuaries to work is the insurance industry. Actuaries look at the chance of property damage and loss, vehicular damage, and individuals becoming sick, disabled or even dying. They pore over statistics to develop insurance policies and the rates customers should pay.

MacDonald began his career in the insurance industry. As a young actuary, he had his choice of jobs. "I was a supervisor by age 23 and a company officer by age 26. It was a rare month when I didn't get [another] job offer. Today there is more competition, and promotion is somewhat slower. Nowadays actuaries tend to be specialists in one field," he says.

Krueger explains that a decline in the number of benefit pension plans has impacted demand, forcing many actuaries to branch out into other benefits consulting.

"On the other hand, the need for employees to take on additional personal financial responsibility as employer and government plans provide less support will continue to drive demand for professionals with actuarial credentials," predicts Krueger. And it's the consulting side of the actuarial professional that's seen the most growth over the past decade.

Rohana Ambagaspitiya is a university professor. She says their actuarial science program has no enrollment cap so competition for spaces is not a problem. However, she admits students haven't always found immediate work in the industry.

She remembers a time in the '90s when many graduates were unable to find entry-level jobs. "It's better [now], but not 100 percent."

Actuarial science students are instructed on topics included in the professional actuarial examinations. These exams are sponsored and supervised by various professional bodies, including the Society of Actuaries.

Students may begin writing the first group of exams while attending college, allowing them to work in the field after graduation. Professional development can continue while working and earning a salary. It may take as many as ten years to complete all exams and attain a fellowship in organizations including the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society.

MacDonald recommends a degree in mathematics. He also believes young people should finish high school before deciding on an actuarial career. "What a student should do is decide whether a career in the business and financial world is what is wanted. The choice should be made at university. I don't even think I'd even heard the word actuary until I was in university."

Krueger recommends high school students interested in the actuarial field take advanced mathematics courses, including calculus, and enroll in computer science courses to develop computer skills.

"Other activities a high school student can do [include] extracurricular activities where they work on a team as leader. Students should look into actuarial internships for their junior and senior years, attend career fairs for the actuarial profession, consider attending an actuarial summer program and explore college and universities that offer actuarial science curriculum," advises Krueger.

The labor department reports that employment of actuaries is expected to grow as fast as the average for all occupations through 2020. There is steady demand from the insurance industry as well as increased opportunities in a range of new actuarial positions.

It's this variety and the changing environment of the profession that Krueger likes best.

"I've found that being an actuary has offered me many opportunities to work in different areas and on different types of projects. I've worked on consulting projects in Australia and Europe, and have looked at business opportunities in South America. I've worked on merger and acquisition jobs, business strategy, efficiency analysis and software sales," she adds.

"Certainly the actuarial career has been beneficial to me. And for a person who is analytical and inclined to a financial orientation, it's a great career. The opportunities have been extremely interesting," concludes Krueger.


Be an Actuary - A Career Without Boundaries
Provides advice for students considering an actuarial career

American Academy of Actuaries
The organizational body for all actuaries in the United States

Society of Actuaries
A large organization promoting education and research into actuarial science

The Actuarial Foundation
A philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting the actuarial profession

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