Become an actuary: an expert in risk management

Actuary-in-training Jonny Solomon tells Hannah Langworth what he does - and what you could get out of following in his footsteps
Other finance

Jonny Solomon is an actuary, which means he's an expert in risk management. Actuaries use mathematical techniques to assess and, where possible, quantify the probability and possible outcomes of future events. Their ability to do so allows them to give businesses strategic advice and help them plan for the future.

Actuarial work is renowned for being complex and challenging, which means qualifying as an actuary requires extensive further study after leaving university (see below). But once you qualify, you'll join a highly-respected profession where you'll be rewarded well for your expertise. You'll have the opportunity to work in many different roles in different industries and could become a senior figure in a consulting or insurance firm, or elsewhere in the finance and business worlds. And because UK actuarial qualifications are recognised internationally it's also possible to work abroad.

We asked Jonny a few questions to find out more about working as an actuary, and his own career.

Can you outline your career so far?

I went to university in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I studied actuarial science and mathematical statistics. After university, I worked for a small insurance company in Johannesburg for about a year and a half. I then decided to get some international experience so moved to the UK and since then have been doing actuarial work in the insurance industry here.

How would you define an actuary?

Actuaries are able to put a monetary value, or otherwise make financial sense of, things that might happen in the future, particularly negative events. An actuary has the skills to take a step back, analyse the risk in question, and say it has the potential to affect a company in certain ways and by certain financial amounts.

However, as well as looking at business risks, actuaries also look at opportunities. A key part of the job is being able to identify opportunities and work out how to manage the potential risks that come with them to make them even more attractive.

What kind of work do actuaries do?

My experience is mainly in the insurance world. Here actuaries might look at insurance policies that an insurance company is considering issuing and, by assessing the risks involved, consider what price the insurer should charge for those policies. I've also worked on managing the criteria the clients we work with have to meet, and on testing portfolios of insurance policies relating to particular geographical regions against potential economic scenarios which might affect those regions, such as ones relating to the eurozone debt crisis.

Insurance and banking are typical industries for actuaries to work in, but actuaries might also work in asset management or consulting. Actuaries are found in other industries, such as energy, where they'll apply their problem-solving skills to assess risk. In energy that could mean, for example, looking at the potential profitability and risks involved in setting up an oil platform in the Arctic.

What kind of skills are needed?

There's a significant technical mathematical element to the work so you need strong skills in this area, but there's more to the job than this. A massive component of the job is working with other people - you need to have good communication skills as you have to be able to present your findings and views clearly to people within your company and often to external clients.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I like the maths component of my job, but I also like the fact that my work is very broad. As an actuary you can get involved in a lot of different projects and get a lot of exposure within an organisation.

The breadth and transferability of the skills you acquire working as an actuary means you can move horizontally to different industries and, because the qualifications you gain are internationally recognised, it's easy to work overseas.

I also like the fact that it's not the kind of job where you're going to be there until 2am every night. The job is very demanding, but you get time for yourself. You also get very well remunerated for what you do.

What should students do while at university if they want to become an actuary?

Build up your knowledge of what's happening in the world, especially on the economic side of things. Keep watching Bloomberg or CNBC and reading the Financial Times.

Actuarial firms require graduates joining them to have high grades and you need to have a solid academic grounding for the technical work you'll do. I took an actuarial science and mathematical statistics degree, so what I learnt was directly relevant to my career now, but any degree that gives you problem-solving skills is going to help you as an actuary.

As an actuary you need to be able to work in the real world, so at university you should aim to get involved in extracurricular activities which give you a sense of how organisations work and teach you how to interact with other people on a professional level. Getting involved in my university's student council helped me a lot.

It's also good to find out more about a career as an actuary through organisations such as The Actuarial Profession - some of the talks they run would be very helpful for students.

Where could training as an actuary take a student in the future?

Qualifying as an actuary is challenging so there's only a limited number of actuaries and their services are always in demand. What's great about being an actuary at the moment is that, because of the financial crisis, the world has started to really appreciate the importance of risk management.

There are currently a lot of opportunities for actuaries relating to emerging markets such as Brazil, China and India. These economies are growing fast, but there are a lot of risks involved in working with them that actuaries can help businesses address.

How to become an actuary

1) You'll need an A-level or Higher in maths

Most employers will look for a Grade B (or equivalent) or higher.

2) Get a 2:1 degree or better

Numerate subjects are preferred and will give you a better basis for the work involved in the job, but it's possible to become an actuary with a good degree in most subjects.

3) Join an actuarial firm as a graduate trainee

You could start your career with a specialist firm of actuaries, or a larger general professional services firm.

4) Qualify as a Fellow

Doing so will involve studying for and passing 15 actuarial exams, alongside three years of acquiring work-based skills (training on the job). If your degree subject is relevant to actuarial work, you may be eligible for some exemptions. The process of qualification is long, usually between three and six years, but you may well be rewarded by your firm each time you pass an exam with a bonus, additional responsibility, a top-up to your salary, or a combination of all three. Once you qualify you'll become a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.

5) Progress further.

As you increase in expertise, the number of roles and opportunities available to you will grow.