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If your brain is as big as a planet, this is the best job in finance

Investment bankers may have to lie about their profession at dinner parties these days, but actuaries have their own problems in social situations.

“There are so many jokes about actuaries being introverted, or the job being on the dull side,” said Lynda Whitney, an actuary and partner at Aon Hewitt. The classic: ‘How to you spot an extrovert actuary? He looks at your shoes rather than his own when he talks to you’.

And yet, working as an actuary is considered the most desirable vocation. A survey by US jobs site CareersCast.com suggests that of all jobs ranked by “physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook”, actuaries have the best deal. Becoming an actuary is therefore the best choice of career path, CareersCast concluded.

The on-going shortage of actuaries has been well-documented, and has been exacerbated over the last 18 months by many switching to highly-paid contract roles related to Solvency II regulation in Europe. However, to suggest that the job market for actuaries is hot, going on steaming, is something of an exaggeration.

“Demand for actuaries tends to go in peaks and troughs around particular functions,” said Whitney. “Five years ago, pensions actuaries were in demand because of historical pensions mis-selling, while it’s now focused on change and regulatory structure in the insurance sector. It’s a healthy job market, but certainly not over-blown.”

The average salary for actuaries in the US is $87.6k, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. In the UK, a newly-qualified actuary gets £46.5k, figures from Xpert HR suggest, rising to £59.8k for a senior actuary, £110.7k for a function head and £221.2k for a chief actuary.

This pay is good, but all actuaries are initially taken on as trainees – earning an average of £32.8k – and it can take up to six years to become fully qualified. By comparison, first year investment bankers earn between £57-74k, according to figures from Dartmouth Partners.

“The exams are gruelling, but it’s also difficult to fit studying for exams with working four days a week,” said Whitney.

There’s also the fact that the actuarial profession is becoming increasingly demanding. Steve Stubbings, managing director of insurance-focused recruiters The Emerald Group, said that not only do actuaries now have to be more commercially focused, they have to be willing to travel.

“It’s an internationally recognised qualification, but career success often depends on a willingness to take roles in foreign locations,” he said. “There are plentiful jobs in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Continental Europe, but actuaries have to be dynamic enough to pursue them. Other areas of the financial sector have been on a roller-coaster ride recently, but actuarial demand has remained consistent.”

As you move up the career ladder as an actuary, it’s less about having a brain the size of a planet, and more about being able to relate complex mathematical concepts to a diverse range of people. Shoe-gazers need not apply.

“On the consulting side of the business in particular, you could be working with really sophisticated investors one minute, and then pensions trustees who have no formal investment training,” said Whitney. “I’m 15 years into my career and the job is less about crunching the numbers and more about communicating them to a broad range of clients.”

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