February 24, 2007
Actuaries pursue safety in numbers
Special to The Seattle Times
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
When it comes to dollars and cents, nearly 2 million insurance customers count on Margaret Meister's know-how when they buy an insurance policy or make a claim involving Bellevue-based Symetra Financial.
But far from the front lines of insurance sales, claims and adjustments, Meister rarely meets any of her policyholders.
Meister is an insurance actuary, a mathematical mastermind whose specialized training provides the "science" behind the trillion-dollar worldwide insurance industry.
She's one of just 10,500 such financial wizards in the nation who crunch a slew of numbers and study complex statistics to make sure the price, or premium, of insurance will cover a provider's claims and expenses.
"I like the approach of looking at a lot of numbers and understanding the story that they tell of what happened and what could happen in the future," Meister says.
While the entire U.S. insurance industry has 2.3 million workers, insurance actuaries make up less than one-half of 1 percent of that number.
A field with opportunity
Actuaries put pricetags on risks, but the field offers job security. For more on this career, see the profession's Web site:
American Academy of Actuaries: www.actuary.org
Yet this small niche of experts has what Seattle-based Pemco Insurance human-resources director Cindy Gok calls "the whole picture" of the insurance industry.
"They're able to take a total look at losses over a period of time. They see things from a higher level."
And while insurance actuaries don't work face to face with customers, their slant on stats can directly affect a customer because "they determine financial risk and fair, equitable rates by predicting future losses based on past statistical trends," according to Darrin Sanger, NW Insurance Council communications director.
As chief financial officer, executive vice president and chief actuary at Symetra Financial, Meister oversees a 50-member actuary team that handles a $20 billion investment portfolio. But Meister dispels any myth that their job requires her peers to "eat, sleep and breathe numbers," as she put it.
"I think people sometimes instinctively associate insurance with just a car or homeowners policy," she says.
But today's actuaries are responsible for a "much broader set of financial services things like retirement income, 401(k) plans and wealth protection," she said. "We provide the sort of financial services that are integral to peoples' lives. Plus, ours is a trillion-dollar industry worldwide, so there is a lot of upside potential for smart, aspiring math whizzes out there."
Meister started out with plans to become a doctor, but economics caught her fancy at Whitman College in Walla Walla and she never looked back. That makes her a bit of an anomaly.
While the insurance business has a certain appeal in helping customers after accidents and disasters, says Gok, it's not a field many people are drawn into naturally.
"People don't see it as a glamour industry," Gok says.
Insiders, she says, often laugh among themselves that even insurance professionals don't know how they ended up in the industry.
"It's very rare for people to go to college and say 'I want to go into insurance management,' " concedes Martin Murphy, the senior vice president of Jacobsen Group, an Atlanta-based national insurance recruiting company with an office in Bellevue.
But things are beginning to change, he believes.
"Slowly but surely, insurance recruiting is becoming more active on college campuses," says Murphy. "Successful companies need to be more proactive and show that it's a profession beyond sales and claims."
Increasingly, he says, the industry is encouraging new hires to "touch their toes into a lot of different parts of the business" before they decide on a specialty, Murphy says.
At Pemco, Gok balances her recruiting among college candidates, so-called homegrown employees and connections outside her company.
"We don't always look for people from insurance," Gok says. "We've hired people from accounting firms, software companies quite a variety, a good mix. If we hired just from within the insurance industry, we might be missing something."
Hiring in the actuary field, meanwhile, continues to be hot for college graduates with economics degrees or interest in finance and business.
Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects actuary job growth will be "faster than average" in the coming years. The Washington state Employment Security Department projects an 18.5 percent job growth in this field for King and Snohomish counties over the next seven years.
Wages are encouraging, too.
The median salary of an actuary in Seattle is $59,000, according to PayScale, a Seattle company that tracks compensation and benefits. Nationwide, most actuaries earned between $54,770 and $107,650 a year, according to BLS figures.
Actuaries also may earn merit pay increases after gaining experience or passing exams.
- career profile (164)
- cool jobs (68)
- education and training (61)
- entry level (70)
- etiquette (107)
- events (71)
- featured (415)
- finding your passion (95)
- health care (73)
- interviewing (88)
- job fairs (61)
- management (89)
- market trends (92)
- networking (274)
- resumes (102)
- salary (85)
- social media (91)
- technology (113)
- unemployment (55)
- work/life balance (91)