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Actually, it's one of the best jobs in the country

Actuaries are in growing demand as businesses seek help in assessing risk across a wider playing field.

By J. NEALY-BROWN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2002


Steven Zoldos knows when you get sick, how often you go to the doctor and how much you plunk down for your prescriptions.

Steven Zoldos knows when you get sick, how often you go to the doctor and how much you plunk down for your prescriptions.

Zoldos counts up all those things and plugs them into math equations that tell him how much you should be required to pay for health insurance. He's an actuary.

It's one of the best jobs in America, according to the Jobs Rated Almanac, considering the good pay, low stress and great promotional opportunities.

It's also one of the lesser known careers that is gaining popularity on college campuses as the actuary's role evolves from the traditional image of green eyeshade number crunchers. Today's actuaries help business evaluate the risk of opportunities, such as investing in emerging markets or expanding into e-commerce.

Generally, actuaries look at the past -- as reflected in measurements such as mortality tables and car accident rates -- to predict how insurance rates should be set, for example.

It's like looking through a rearview mirror to predict what the road ahead will be like, said Zoldos, president of Wakely Consulting Group, a Clearwater actuarial company that specializes in health and managed care. Wakely recently crunched some numbers for Pinellas County and recommended that more money go into its health insurance fund. The county decided to raise insurance rates for its employees.

Actuaries are "financial architects of risk programs," Zoldos said. The rates are supposed to be high enough for companies to set aside money even for huge disasters.

But there are some assurances that actuaries can never give because certain events have never happened before. That was demonstrated vividly by the Sept. 11 acts of terrorism, a sneak attack that gave pause even to the most confident of actuaries.

"Usually we can calculate the risk if we have some data of experience," said Lija Guo, director of the actuarial science program at the University of Central Florida.

"But this is so new. It's really, really hard." After all, she said, imagine how to calculate for property owners the odds of two jets plunging into two buildings and demolishing them.

Terrorism has "really thrown some curve balls for insurance agencies and actuaries because what we cannot predict, we cannot insure," said Rade Musulin, an actuary with the Florida Farm Bureau and chairman of the Florida Insurance Council.

"There is no computer model for Osama bin Laden and his cronies. I think to some degree, (businesses) are asking us to do the impossible," Musulin said.

While some companies are demanding financial protection against terrorism, less dramatic events are having a bigger impact on actuaries.

Among the most significant are the mergers of financial institutions, said Sarah Sanford, executive director of the Society of Actuaries.

"There's actually fewer jobs in the traditional industries, but there are new industries looking for those skills," Sanford said. "The actuary's domain is to look at business problems and say what are the potential risks associated with this."

Nationally, there are at least 20,000 actuaries, usually with backgrounds in math, computer science, physics or economics. Compared to other careers, the profession is not forecast to have explosive growth over the next few years.

But the demand is growing noticeably in government and health insurance industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More jobs also are opening up in financial services and consulting branches of actuarial science.

And more academic institutions are turning their attention to the profession. According to the Labor Department, the number of colleges and universities offering actuarial programs has jumped from 55 to about 100 since 2000. Many students also are seeking business education because actuaries have taken on advisory roles for key corporate decisionmakers.

Florida State University began offering a bachelor's degree in actuarial science in 1999. The University of Central Florida is expecting to confer its first batch of bachelor's degrees in the field next year. Guo joined the UCF staff in August 2000 to start the program.

"I get calls from recruiters," Guo said. "Some companies just relocated and they called me right away and say, "Hey, we need actuaries.' "

The most basic requirement to becoming an actuary is extreme proficiency in math. At the least, prospective actuaries must pass four exams to become an associate, which can take between three and five years.

Many then choose whether to pursue the more advanced fellowship status by passing exams given by the Society of Actuaries, which tests students on life and health insurance, pension, finance and investment fields, or the Casualty Actuarial Society, which gives exams on fire, accident, medical malpractice, workers' compensation and property liability issues.

The more exams actuaries pass, the higher the pay. The National Association of Colleges and Employers pegged starting salaries for college grads with math or actuarial science degrees at an average of $45,753 last year. Top actuaries earn more than $127,630, according to government statistics.

The profession has used its top rankings in the Jobs Rated Almanac to boost recognition among students and other potential actuaries.

Experienced actuaries tell potential recruits that, yes, the work can be mundane. But it doesn't have to be. Michael Shackleford, a former actuary at the Social Security Administration, once compiled a list of the most popular names given to newborns since 1880. His work is still posted on the Social Security Administration's Web site.

Now he serves as a consultant for the gaming industry, which can never get enough advice about the odds of a player beating the house. It's a matter of pure probabilities and a natural for a mathematician like Shackleford.

"I've always been a gambler," said Shackleford, who lives in Las Vegas and just started teaching a casino math class at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "And math is perfectly suited for gambling."

-- J. Nealy-Brown can be reached at nealy@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8846.

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