February 21, 2010
Best job of 2010: Actuary, often 'at the bottom of the geek chain,' tops study
They are the odds-makers of life. With computers, calculations and curiosity, they place a financial value on risk and can run the numbers on everything from health insurance to pensions to hurricanes.
They are actuaries.
“We are kind of at the bottom of the geek chain. Unfortunately, the accountants try to make fun of us,” says Steve Sperka, an actuary who is vice president of the long-term care department at Northwestern Mutual.
These days, actuaries are riding high. The profession got a boost recently when actuary was ranked as the best job of 2010, according to a recent study for job site CareerCast.com.
Best (and worst) jobs
The top 10 jobs for 2010, based on physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook, according to careercast.com:
2. Software engineer
3. Computer systems analyst
7. Paralegal assistant
10. Dental hygienist
At the bottom of the list:
191. Mail carrier
192. Meter reader
193. Construction worker
194. Taxi driver
195. Garbage collector
197. Dairy farmer
The study rated 200 positions by measuring working environment, income, hiring outlook, physical demands and stress. In the King County area, actuaries earned a median wage of $75,090 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Actuary was placed ahead of software engineer, computer systems analyst, biologist and historian.
The news caused a brief stir in the actuarial profession. Suddenly, workers who labor behind the scenes had something to crow about. Well, not too loudly; they are actuaries, after all.
“We’re rated the No. 1 job,” Sperka says, “the No. 1 job that most people have never heard of. And those who have heard of it don’t understand what we do.” He says he tells people that “actuaries are the engineers of the insurance industry.”
“If you think about what an engineer does with a car — makes sure everything fits, the doors work — an actuary does the exact same thing with insurance products,” Sperka says.
Karen Ferguson, a recent college graduate who works as an actuarial associate with Northwestern Mutual, is even more succinct. “We predict the future,” she says. “That’s what we try to do, using different statistics and probabilities.”
When they do their job well, actuaries make the insurance world run smoothly.
Being an actuary calls for strength in mathematics, agility in business problem solving and solid communication skills. A college degree is just one step on the actuary ladder.
Actuaries must also pass a series of exams to earn professional designations. They work in life insurance, health insurance, pensions and property and casualty.
Want to actually be an actuary? A mathematics-related bachelor’s degree will help prepare students to take actuary exams. Central Washington University and Washington State University have actuarial science programs, while the University of Washington has an Actuary Club to help prepare students for the profession.
“If you have a life-insurance plan, it’s the actuaries who design the features of the plan and come up with the price,” says Marjorie A. Rosenberg, chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actuarial science department.
Eric Key, co-director of the actuarial science program at UWM, says he wasn’t surprised that actuary rated highly among American jobs. The profession usually ranks in the top 10.
“It’s sort of self-selecting,” he says. “This is not an easy thing to do, so the people who are likely to want to do it are inclined to like it in the first place.”
Key says he doesn’t worry that publicity for the profession will lead to a surplus of actuaries.
“You would think that whatever happens with health-care reform, that will create work for actuaries,” he says. “If there is any kind of radical change to how health care is delivered in the U.S., someone will have to tell you how much it will cost.”
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