The Current Market for Actuarial Talent
Part 2: Having the Competitive Edge and in Today’s Economy
By Arthur J. Schwartz
We continue our roundtable discussion of the actuarial job market with our roundtable of prominent actuarial recruiters. Our panel includes:
Angie Wachholz, from D.W. Simpson Global Actuarial Recruitment in Chicago. DW Simpson works on a global basis and is the largest firm specializing in actuarial recruitment. Angie is a senior recruiter. Her firm specializes in actuarial recruitment within all lines of business including property and casualty, life, health and pension, as well as all levels from entry to Fellowship. She can be reached at Angie.email@example.com.
Margaret Resce Milkint, from The Jacobson Group in Chicago. Margaret is managing partner of The Jacobson Group, the nation’s leading insurance search and staffing firm. Margaret handles executive management and actuarial searches on a national and international basis across all aspects of the insurance industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Coleman, from Nationwide Actuarial Search (NAS) in Las Vegas. His firm specializes exclusively in the placement of casualty actuaries anywhere in the country as well as some off-shore opportunities. NAS is well recognized in the casualty insurance industry and has been placing P&C actuaries for more than 25 years from students through Fellows of the CAS. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Pauline Reimer, ASA. MAAA, from Pryor Associates in New York. Named a top recruiting firm by Dun & Bradstreet, Pryor has 40 years of insurance (P&C, Life, Health, Pensions, and Investments) experience. Pauline has headed the actuarial placement division since 1986, after working as an actuary in insurance and consulting firms. She is also a CAS Platinum Partner, on the SOA Entrepreneurial Actuaries Section Council, on the Executive Board of ASNY, and on the Advisory Board of Columbia University’s Masters in Actuarial Science program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schwartz: How is the current economy affecting the students currently in college and recent college graduates? Should they try to pass one or more exams before graduation? Should they try to obtain an actuarial internship in the summer before graduating?
Wachholz: Jobs are plentiful for entry-level candidates, but the field is more competitive than it has ever been. More people are taking and passing the actuarial exams. Consequently more employers have raised the bar. Employers want at least one exam but more commonly two exams or even three exams. Employers are looking at the number of attempts too, and a GPA of at least 3.0, yet preferably 3.5. Some proficiency in computer software such as SAS or Visual Basic, and communication skills are imperative. Also, companies are looking more at local candidates. Our advice to entry-level candidates is to adopt a philosophy of continual improvement: keep taking your exams, honing your computer skills, and learning more about the industry. Have the mindset that it is not enough to be a strong candidate—be the best candidate. Take a look at your resume, identify some of the weaknesses, and improve those areas, so you can present a whole package—a well-rounded person, to prospective employers.
Reimer: There are literally thousands of applicants for each entry-level opening. If a candidate says, “I’ll only look for a job in New York City,” I’ll respond, “Please, take concentric circles around that area” and keep expanding the geographical regions you are willing to consider. Actuarial internships are more important than ever before and give a candidate a distinct advantage in getting hired for an entry-level position. Also, we see companies less willing to offer immigration sponsorship at the trainee level. Presentation skills are so important. Many students are not aware of how to dress appropriately for an interview, unfortunately.
Milkint: There’s more interest from employers in hiring a student who presents a “full package.” Because there are more candidates, the bar has been raised. Candidates can have a couple exams plus an actuarial internship, but ultimately the person who is hired is the person who can communicate and can be seen as a future leader. Also because banking and investment banks are not hiring right now, I am encouraging my clients to over-hire on the entry-level positions right now. There will not be an over-abundance of candidates when banks start hiring again and can pay more for an entry-level position than an insurer can.
Wachholz: The “full package” concept is important in becoming hired not only at the student level, but even for a Fellow with 25 years’ experience. Companies are looking at several dozen candidates at a time so you have got to really stand out. Yes, you have to be able to do the daily actuarial work, but you also have to be able to give a presentation and communicate concepts to nontechnical audiences. This is especially true for actuaries who hold nontraditional positions in risk management, for example.
Reimer: Not only are there fewer entry-level openings in the banking and investment sectors right now, but jobs in computer companies and dot-coms are not as common as in the past. Those are additional reasons that so many more people are looking to be actuaries right now. In addition, we are the number one-ranked occupation in the United States, and priceless publicity is generated due to this fact.
Coleman: College students should strive to have credit for one to three exams before they graduate. This provides a clear advantage over those college students who have no exams. Advanced degrees, such as masters and doctorates, offer advantages to candidates in the more specialized areas of statistical modeling and research. Anything an entry-level person can do to distinguish them from other candidates at the same level will be exponentially advantageous to the candidate. They will be the ones hired first. This must be framed with the assumption that effective communications skills are part of the profile of the individual.
Schwartz: What is appropriate dress today, especially considering the trend toward casual dress in the workplace?
Coleman: For any interview the candidate must dress to impress. Dress well and dress professionally: suit and tie, shined shoes, clean shaven, clean hair, and clean hands. It’s not business casual; it’s not dressy casual. Some candidates just do not do this. Some business environments always dress casually but it should not be assumed it’s acceptable for the candidate to present themselves in that dress. If there are any questions, clear it with your recruiter or even human resources at the company. Don’t assume it will be okay—better to err on the conservative side.
Reimer: There are two interview situations when “business casual” dressing is acceptable: if the hiring company advised the candidate in advance that “dressing down” is okay (often because the candidate is coming in on a Friday, which is commonly a casual dress day), or if a candidate is “popping in” for a short interview, say just during a lunch hour. But for a half-day or full-day interview, it’s important to put your best foot forward and dress in full business attire.
Wachholz: Unless you are specifically told NOT to dress business professional, then you should always err on the side of dressier. It’s important to put your best foot forward—really look sharp and impressive. This is perhaps one way to be remembered and have an advantage over other candidates.
Milkint: It’s all about attention to detail and getting the edge over other candidates. If another candidate has the edge, such as a suit and tie, take it to the next level: your shirt needs to be pressed and your shoes need to be polished. The details are so important!
Schwartz: What do you mean by “communication skills?”
Wachholz: That covers a range of things. For example, when you are in an interview, you are making eye contact, you are giving a firm solid handshake. Communication skills are paramount in a phone interview, which are sometimes more complex to navigate than an in-person interview. In a phone interview, you can’t see the person so you really have to go above and beyond in stressing your communication skills. For example, if English is not your first language, do what you can to improve your language skills. Given the competition in the current market, you want to make sure that you fine-tune each piece of your candidacy in order to really set yourself apart.
Reimer: Strong communication skills include voice projection, especially during a phone interview. If candidates acknowledge that they have an accent that could be a hindrance to obtaining or being successful in a new job, I have recommended that they attend an accent reduction course, to make sure that they have excellent vocal clarity. I’ve even recommended that native English speakers may want to enroll in a communications course to present themselves in a more professional and articulate manner.
Wachholz: If they speak a language other than English in their home, I’ll often recommend to candidates to spend at least two hours a day speaking only English at home. Talking about simple subjects around people you’re comfortable with is a suggestion I’ll often pass along to non-native English speakers. Another idea is to rehearse in front of the mirror or to write out your answers to possible interview questions in order to have a clear idea of what you’d like to convey.
Coleman: For candidates whose first language is not English, it’s important to practice adequately. It’s hard to change speech patterns in a matter of hours or even days. When some candidates get under pressure to expand explanations, they may default to more comfortable speech expressions and that’s when they may lose the listener.
Milkint: Written communication is critical. For example, e-mails are not texts. Any written communication with employers should always be professional and formal. That does not mean your message cannot be warm and approachable. Your grammar and your spelling should be impeccable, and “you” is not “u.”
Wachholz: There’s a level of business etiquette that should always be present in all communication—be this verbal or written. More and more we are seeing companies requesting writing samples from candidates so that companies can assess their writing abilities before bringing them on board.
Milkint: Communication skills are holistic. It’s how you speak, how you present, and how you respect your audience. For example, is your interview one-on-one, or is there a small group around a table interviewing you? Are you making eye contact with people all around the table? We could have a single discussion on communication skills!
Wachholz: Yet another aspect of communication skills is being well prepared for the interview. This means looking at the company Web site, understanding the role they are hiring for and having questions prepared for the interviewers—this shows a sincere interest in both the company and the position. If you do this, you are going to impress the decision makers involved in hiring and you are going to gain a distinct advantage.
Schwartz: So do some homework on the company before you go on the interview.
Reimer: Not just “some” homework, but a lot of homework. When I first became a recruiter 24 years ago, there was no such thing as the Internet. I remember providing an invaluable service by educating candidates about the intricacies, history, and financial statistics of the prospective company before the interview. If they are asked on the interview, “What do you know about our company?” they should be able to outline at least five facts about the hiring organization.
Wachholz: There’s that competitive edge issue again, you are going up against two dozen or three dozen other candidates and you have to stand out. This means that you’ve got to prepare for the interview and really portray yourself as “this is the position you want!”
Coleman: They must have well-considered questions. If they are asked during the interview if they have questions, they must always answer in the affirmative: yes! Saying “no” reflects poorly and may indicate the candidate is not fully engaged or is not interested. Even if the candidate just reiterates something just spoken about, they must have questions to demonstrate that they have the ability to communicate and to express themselves clearly.
Reimer: Asking questions shows intellectual curiosity. It is definitely a deal killer if you have no questions to ask. Even if you interview with six hiring authorities on the same day, you still have to have questions prepared for that sixth interviewer because to him or her, you are his or her only interview that day.
Wachholz: It’s also important that you are as engaging with the sixth person that you interview with that day as you are with the first person. While a day of interviewing can be exhausting, keeping up your own momentum and enthusiasm is a significant piece of the interview process.
Reimer: Schools do not emphasize grammar as much today. Many people do not know where to place a comma or apostrophe! To be successful professionals, I have recommended that some actuaries enroll in business writing classes.
Schwartz: Is there any significant unemployment in the profession? If so, are there any underlying areas of practice that are more affected? What is the employment outlook going forward?
Coleman: Consulting is an area that we have seen a lot of people released from. Now, those firms are hiring back but oftentimes at lower salaries. Quite a few of those released people are still in the job market. Frequently they are more senior people with fewer years to retirement, and some companies see them as less cost-effective than more junior people who don’t necessarily have the same level of skills but would earn less money. Companies make hiring decisions based on many factors and pay, age, productivity, and position effectiveness are just some of them. A candidate must strive to be a “total package.”
Milkint: In P&C, unemployment is not significant. An unemployed P&C actuary with experience will land a job pretty quickly.
Wachholz: There are definitely actuaries who are unemployed for several reasons—layoffs, being let go for poor performance, etc. What’s important is that you position yourself as a well-rounded actuary who has the business acumen and the communication skills to wow not only their current, but also their future employers.
Reimer: I agree that because of the recession, companies are more prone to lay off employees who are not pulling their weight—either not performing up to par or students not passing exams in accordance with their company’s actuarial student guidelines—and they are calling it “layoffs.” Companies are doing it as a group, bunching it up so any one person does not feel as if they are singled out.
Schwartz: What are some strategies for networking today that can possibly lead to friendships as well as employment referrals down the road?
Milkint: Social networking is having an impact. People can build networks and friendships.
Wachholz: It’s important if you are a candidate to align yourself with a recruiter. This will not only assist in your search, but it’s also important to be kept aware of what’s out there with regard to positions—you are a better candidate if you know what types of positions are available. This means that you’re aware of the market and trends.
Reimer: Candidates submitting resumes to a company portal may not realize that they are comingling with hundreds of other resumes of candidates who may be totally unsuited for the position. A good recruiter can help a candidate bypass the portals and land an in-person interview. Also, unfortunately, we as recruiters cannot present candidates to companies if their resumes are already in the system. I would advise candidates to not submit their resume to company portals purely in the hope that one day there will be an opening. Instead, candidates should be selective about distributing their resume so a recruiter can present them for the right opportunity at the right time.
Milkint: There’s a value to the high-touch service that we provide as recruiters. The actuarial community is small and requires people who know how to navigate it, and that is what we are all very good at.
Schwartz: Thanks to all for sharing your expertise!