Actuarial: graduate area of work

Actuaries evaluate complex risks. This is a career area suited to highly analytical, numerate graduates who can communicate well and keep a strategic eye on the future.

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The work is varied in nature, involving a good mixture of client-facing activities and number-crunching.

An actuary is essentially a financial forecaster who calculates and assesses risks, and predicts future outcomes. Actuaries use complex statistical and mathematical models to predict the occurrence and potential impact of uncertain events, and maintain and update these models according to changes in the financial landscape.

Key roles typically involve monitoring these predicted impacts, advising clients of their findings and developing solutions. The work is typically varied, involving a good mix of customer-facing activities and number-crunching.

Traditionally, actuaries have worked in the insurance and pensions industries but they’re increasingly moving into areas such as healthcare, banking, business management and enterprise risk assessment.

Jenni Hughes, careers marketing leader at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA), told TARGETjobs, ‘With all the work that is available in both traditional and “newer” areas of industry – and against the backdrop of the 2008 banking crisis – becoming an actuary is being regarded as a long-term, international and rewarding career.’

What education and degree background do I need to become an actuary?

You need to have an A level in maths – typically at grade ‘B’ or above – or an equivalent qualification. Officially, any degree subject is acceptable to become an actuary. However, in practice, most employers require a numerate degree such as statistics, economics or mathematics. Actuarial science degrees and postgraduate qualifications can exempt you from some of the professional qualification examinations that you do on the job (see below).

If you are from a non-numerate degree background, you first need to find an employer willing to accept your degree. You then need to display a strong understanding of the financial system and a good grasp of figures.

Who typically employs graduate actuaries?

  • Specialist actuarial and management consultancies, such as Mercer and Willis Towers Watson
  • Accountancy and professional services firms, such as Deloitte and PwC
  • Insurance companies and brokers, and pensions funds. Examples of insurance employers include Aon, Aviva and Swiss Re
  • Retail and investment banks
  • The Government Actuarial Department (GAD)

What will I do in an actuarial trainee role?

You’ll usually start out as a trainee, performing tasks to support senior colleagues. At first the work will involve carrying out calculations and making financial projections based on pre-constructed models; later down the line you’ll have a hand in constructing these models and deciding which are most suitable by reviewing results and drafting reports. From the outset you will be studying for a professional qualification alongside full-time work (see below). Balancing work and study can be challenging, but most employers are happy to shoulder the bulk of the cost and often offer support such as up to 40 days’ study leave per year.

What professional qualifications must I take?

Employed trainee actuaries are required to study towards professional qualifications with the IFoA. As a trainee actuary, you will study towards an associateship (at which time you can officially call yourself an actuary and put the letters AIA or AFA after your name). Later, you can study towards a fellowship (and put the letters FIA or FFA after your name). Associates and fellows can also study for the chartered enterprise risk actuary qualification and specialise in risk management.

Qualifying for associate level typically takes between three and six years. There are four stages to the examination: core technical stage, core applications stage, specialist technical stage and specialist applications stage. Subjects include financial mathematics, publicity and mathematical statistics, models, economics, communications, general insurance and risk management.

Although you will need to take the qualfication while working on the job, Jenni told us that an increasing number of would-be actuaries are starting to take some of the IFoA’s core technical examinations early – as a student and while job-hunting – to impress employers with their commitment to the profession. While the vast majority of graduates do not start their examinations early and it is unlikely that graduate employers will expect you to have done so, it is worth bearing in mind the lengths to which some students and graduates will apparently go in order to boost their job applications.

What is the career path of an actuary?

Once qualified, many actuaries choose to specialise in a particular area that interests them, such as insurance or pensions, or to practise abroad as the qualification is recognised worldwide.

Many actuaries progress to more senior managerial roles and take on greater responsibilities including handling client relationships and undertaking important technical duties. Since the work actuaries do is increasingly wide ranging and often applicable to many different sectors, opportunities also exist in seemingly unrelated fields, for instance on infrastructure projects or schemes that address climate change.

What skills should I have to be an actuary?

The best actuaries have a good head for numbers and are highly self-motivated. They are astute problem solvers, hard workers and top-notch communicators. The work can be changeable so possessing good foresightedness and flexibility is essential.

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