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With university deadlines looming is Actuarial Science on your shortlist?

21 September 2015 Mike McDougall, Actuarial Society of South Africa

Learners currently in Grade 12 wanting to go to university next year have until the end of this month to submit their application forms. And learners in Grade 11 are by now under pressure to narrow down potential career options for university admission in 2017.

Mike McDougall, CEO of the Actuarial Society of South Africa, says unfortunately many will make decisions based on limited information and the opinions of friends, teachers and family. Many will also be more familiar with professions such as medicine, engineering, law and even accountancy. 

“However, other than being told, ‘You’re good at maths, so you should become an actuary – they’re well paid,’ very few learners are aware of the actuarial profession or what actuaries actually do,” says McDougall.

“After all,” he states, “There are currently less than 1 100 fully qualified actuaries in South Africa, which means that most Grade 11 and Grade 12 learners are unlikely to have met an actuary and become inspired to pursue this career.”

Since its distant beginnings in assessing risks for investors in ships sailing the spice route during the 16th century, Actuarial Science has evolved into one of the most globally in demand professions across a range of industries.

Actuarial Science is no longer confined to traditional fields such as life insurance, short-term insurance, the retirement fund industry, healthcare and investments. Instead, actuarial skills are now also sought after in fields as diverse as banking, telecommunications, environmental planning, and, more recently, construction and mining.

McDougall explains that actuaries use highly developed analytical, statistical and numerical abilities to quantify and manage risk, strategising and making provision for the financial implications of loss.

“This is a career that focuses on the future and what may happen, ensuring organisations are prepared to manage challenges that may emerge.”

He encourages ambitious and talented students to consider entering Actuarial Science as one of the most rewarding and dynamic professions in the world. He also notes that actuaries are well-paid professionals with excellent job security and advancement prospects.

He points out, however, that learners need to really consider if they have what it takes to pursue a career in this profession. “You have to be very honest with yourself – it’s not a cakewalk. And an A in Maths is simply not a good enough differentiator,” says McDougall. “Most students, even those who are straight A students through school, will fail one or more subjects. However, for those who persevere and succeed, there are exciting challenges and opportunities”

He explains that the gap between matric and first year university Maths has widened significantly over the years. “As a result we see some 50% of first year university students who achieved ‘A’ symbols for matric maths failing first year university maths.”

He describes the profession as the natural choice for ambitious and hard-working individuals with a passion for innovative analytical thinking and a flair for problem solving.

“Do you work ahead in Maths because you enjoy problem solving, rather than seeing it as a subject you take because you feel you have to? Do Maths Olympiads give you a buzz? Does the prospect of building numerical and statistical models excite you?”

If your answers are ‘yes’, McDougall says that you should consider pursuing a career in Actuarial Science.

How do I become an actuary?

Typically students interested in becoming an actuary first study a four-year Actuarial Science degree at an Actuarial Society-accredited university. McDougall explains that good performance in accredited courses can earn students exemptions from some of the Actuarial Society’s technical examinations.

Six South African universities have accredited actuarial programmes, namely Cape Town, Free State, North West, Pretoria, Stellenbosch and Wits. Students enrol for a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Commerce or Bachelor of Business Science majoring in Actuarial Science, depending on the institution.

Once you have your degree and have found your first job in an actuarial field, you will be expected to demonstrate at least three years of work-based learning under the supervision of a mentor.

During these three years, you can complete the remaining technical skills exams through the Society that universities do not offer, as well as the exams that you may not have earned an exemption from during your degree. You are required to pass 13 technical examinations to become a Fellow of the Actuarial Society and up to a maximum of 12 of these subjects are offered by universities. A Fellow is the title given to a fully qualified actuary.

You will also be expected to attend workshops and complete three normative skills exams facilitated through the Actuarial Society for professional development.

Actuarial Science students from a historically disadvantaged background seeking financial assistance can look to the South African Actuaries Development Programme (SAADP) begun by Cyril Ramaphosa in 2003, and to the Association of South African Black Actuarial Professionals (ASABA) for mentoring.

The Actuarial Society also offers tuition support and exam advice for those studying through the Society.

What do I need?

McDougall notes that excellent Maths marks alone do not necessarily make for a good actuary.

“Physical Science is also strongly recommended as a subject – it might actually be a better predictor than Maths for success because of its emphasis on problem-solving ability,” says McDougall.

He states that Actuarial Science also requires leadership and communication skills. “An important part of our work involves helping other people understand their problems and be more efficient, offering practical solutions and applications,” says McDougall.

McDougall explains that with a high failure rate both at university and completing the professional exams, perseverance is also an underestimated but essential skill for actuaries.

What career paths can I follow?

McDougall points out that the qualification is not the final destination – it’s the beginning of a journey. “You can use this qualification for whatever career path you want to take,” he states.

“Even if you don’t complete all the actuarial exams, people in senior positions and CEOs have found that the training offers a good skills foundation. Even students who have switched their degrees to different fields find that the training offered a good grounding for other interests such as law, engineering or alternate commercial degrees.”

Actuaries generally work in large financial services organisations like insurance companies, banks, investment houses, actuarial consultancies and the big four accounting firms. There are also increasingly opportunities amongst strategic consultancies, data analytics firms and small niche consultancies.

Mutual recognition agreements exist between various actuarial associations around the world, so while actuaries qualifying through the Actuarial Society are ideally equipped to work in South Africa, they will be recognised as qualified actuaries in other countries and can gain international experience.

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