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actuary increasing actuarial skills

The effect of ever-increasing technological change in our personal lives and in the workplace is undeniable and unstoppable. We are looking to a future where AI-powered machines will increasingly replace elements of human activity and intervention in a multitude of tasks.

The actuary who “leverages their strong statistics and mathematics and competencies to evaluate financial uncertainties and potential costs” may be at a greater risk than many of being a casualty of such progress.

In the interests of future preservation and prominence, a firm will look to retain those employees whose contributions – or actuarial 'soft' skills (in addition to their quantitative/technical skills and knowledge, acquired through rigorous study and mechanically applied – i.e., hard skills) cannot so easily be matched by the computer or replicated by the robot.

It will be the ability to use these 'soft' actuarial skills that will be a major discriminator between employees, and it would be advisable for a forward-thinking actuary to ensure they have the tools to do so.

Will Actuaries Be Replaced by Robots?

Actuarial skills: Will Actuaries be Replaced by Robots

So, what exactly are soft skills? Is there an official definition?

 The UNESCO International Bureau of Education suggests “a term to indicate a set of intangible personal qualities, traits, attributes, habits and attitudes that can be used in many different types of jobs”, a definition somewhat intangible in itself and perhaps suggesting innate abilities not achievable by those who may believe they do not already possess them.

A glance through any employer or employment agency website will invariably state the importance of soft actuarial skills, highlighting communication skills and team working, or leadership and motivational qualities, all of which they rightly perceive will enable the employee to build and improve relationships internally with colleagues and externally with clients thereby improving employer profile and prospects.

The thought of having to acquire these valuable attributes, following years of exacting study, whilst simultaneously managing heavy workloads and time-sensitive demands in the office, may feel like an unwelcome additional pressure. However, the good news is that most of us do already have some or all of these skills to some degree, and improving and maintaining, or acquiring them, will not be that demanding of time or effort and can be as habit-forming as brushing one’s teeth.

Rather than strenuous application, often merely a change of attitude and perception or approach is required – thus at little or no cost in terms of time or money – enabling anyone to take their soft skills closer to a professional level. But which soft skills are particularly valuable in respect of the actuarial profession, and how do we gain or improve on them independently or otherwise?

For the actuary the importance of good communication skills cannot be over-emphasised. These are the skills that are used to give or receive information. They are both verbal (spoken or written) and nonverbal – such as listening, making eye contact, and giving positive cues through body language and facial expression.

The role of the actuary is to quantify financial risk and present it to those who may not have the expertise (what is apparent from the spreadsheet to the actuary will be unintelligible to most) or time to digest it, perhaps the CEO of a company or the Trustees of a pension scheme.

Once the junior actuary has risen above the role of “human calculator” what will become more important as they rise-up the ranks will be presenting the results and their implications – it is important to be concise and give a clear message, to know what you want to convey and have the evidence to support it, be it in a simple email or a report to the Board of Directors.

The ability to present a clear message will be imperative within teams, mentoring and giving feedback. Of course, how the message is conveyed is as important as the message, for example it may be appropriate to consider pitch and speed as well as spelling and grammar. We must not however forget that communication is a two-way process and that delivering the message is not all.

It is also most crucial to be or to become a good listener and to receive the right message. By giving full attention to the speaker, making eye contact, and revising key points with them, we can demonstrate engagement and understanding. By observing our own behaviours and those of others, we can be aware of the negatives and imitate the positives. The opportunities to develop these positive habits will occur daily and often in most workplaces.

The Importance of Being Concise

actuarial skills: mark twain quote

As a junior member of staff in an actuarial firm, we may consider leadership skills outside our remit or something to be concerned about in future when applying for managerial roles.

Not so!

Even in junior roles you may be called upon to take the lead on a one-off project or lead a small team of equals. As an equal you can still demonstrate the leadership skills which will motivate and inspire the team to feel positive about the task ahead, respect your role and get their buy-in on the project.

Once again it will be necessary to be concise and confident in communicating aims. The team will know that there is a plan and a pathway to reach the end goal.

The leader should be able to identify and value the strengths of the team members and utilise those strengths through cooperation to achieve the project goals. The leader must be able both to delegate and to accept feedback – it goes without saying that the basis of leadership skills are good communication skills.

We can prepare to take on these leadership tasks by initially volunteering to take on leadership roles, or perhaps by simply organising a social office outing or event or making the effort to be a strong team player instead of taking a comfortable back seat.

Leadership Is Action, Not Position

leadership actuarial skills

Having made the effort to actively engage with our colleagues and organisation it is important to take things a step further and begin to build relationships with those who can provide knowledge and with whom we can share knowledge to assist with each other’s projects. By building networks internally and externally we will increase our breadth of industry knowledge and value to our organisation. Our excellent communication skills should make this a straightforward process!

The performing of highly skilled intensive tasks in the office in conjunction with obtaining the necessary professional exams is a way of life for trainee actuaries. When the trainee actuary has reached the end of the line with the exams, the CPD torture awaits. We do these things because we must. We will not qualify or continue in our profession without ticking the necessary boxes.

Solely performing mandatory tasks however will not future proof our employment.  Employers will evidently expect their employees to be self-motivated, and to meet deadlines and have excellent time management.

However, they will favour employees who take the initiative and can look forward and anticipate possible problems and issues, who are up to date with industry trends. Employers can count on these employees without having to check on them.  A strong work ethic and self-motivation are essential actuarial skills.

Problem solving and technical abilities are part of any actuary’s toolkit.  It is second nature to use logical reasoning to make sound informed decisions, but we must add adaptability or flexibility in dealing with change when it inevitably occurs. We must not be too content with past success and current status – what will be most important will be the ability to adapt.

Being flexible and adaptable will help us to cope with project setbacks and embrace new systems and workplace changes with a positive attitude. One biological definition of adaptation states that it is:

“the process of change by which an organism becomes better suited to its environment” (Google / Oxford Languages definition). 

We can’t see the future but those who can adapt will be most successful in a rapidly changing world and will be open to new opportunities.

Adaptability as a Key Actuarial Skill

actuarial skills: adaptability actuarial skills

Employers recognise that it is not necessarily the most knowledgeable applicant who will be the best employee. As future working arenas become less dependent on our technical hard skills, we will become more vulnerable in our positions as number crunchers and spreadsheet analysts performing individual mathematical tasks to a high degree.

The most junior actuarial trainees may survive to complete their training, but if they are to retain and advance their positions then their thoughts must turn to improving their soft actuarial skills. To begin it is important to self-assess and be honest with oneself in identifying weak areas. 

There is a wealth of useful and free material available to assist with improving one’s soft skills, from employment agency website advice to Ted Talks and YouTube soft skills coaches. Spending a few minutes on the commute or during a lunch break reading or listening to these will constantly sharpen one’s focus and reinforce one’s learning.

Soft Actuarial Skills Learning Resources

actuarial skills learning sources

Employees should take every opportunity to improve their soft actuarial skills, through positively engaging with their colleagues and actively seeking roles that will provide opportunities to enhance leadership, presentational and public speaking skills.

It will be those employees who can sell their organisation’s merits and promote its products, who can communicate effectively and positively with clients and colleagues and build solid enduring relationships – through strong interpersonal skills such as sociability, empathy, and integrity – who will be able to look forward to a long and rewarding career in the actuarial profession.

“This is a guest article written by Vincent Crean.”

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