Riley Howsden has one of those hip jobs everyone loves to hate. He works at L.A.-based video game producer Riot Games, where business attire includes hoodies, the food comes free and his job entails deducing what kinds of products gamers might buy. Aggressive players, for instance, might splurge on samurai-assassin gear for their characters.
Howsden’s current data science gig couldn’t be further afield from his previous one as an insurance actuary — a job so stereotypically mundane the inside joke is “an extroverted actuary is someone who looks at other people’s shoes.”
“If I was to write a cover letter for a job, it’s much easier for me to detail my passion for video games than it is to detail my passion for insurance,” said Howsden, 32, who spent weekends playing video games in his hometown of Oshkosh, Nebraska, population 884.
Howsden’s career pivot is at the root of some soul searching going on within actuarial communities. Seasoned actuaries often earn more than $200,000, and the field perennially ranks near the top of “best career” surveys. A Bankrate.com survey from this summer called actuarial science the most valuable bachelor’s degree based on pay and employment. However, industry conventions are rife with warnings that data scientists are encroaching on actuaries’ turf, and that their lack of speaking skills keeps them locked in bookish roles at insurers.
Mike Lombardi, a past president of the Society of Actuaries, called the industry’s challenge to stay relevant an “existential one” in a speech last year and warned that “complacency is not an option.”
Data science draws the same type of students and appears to be growing far faster, according to stats from the job board Indeed.com. Job postings per million for data science or scientists rose 23 percent in October 2017 and 33 percent last month when compared with a year earlier, according to Indeed.com.
The situation is more muddled for actuaries. The profession’s two main credentialing bodies, the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society, each report that membership is growing by single digits. However, Indeed.com’s actuary job postings fell in 2016 and 2017 before rebounding this year; yet even with a bounce back, the number of 2018 postings are fewer than two years ago. The wave of mergers in the insurance industry could be one reason for this. But data science is increasingly performing similar functions.
“Although it’s important to society, the insurance industry doesn’t have the greatest image,” said Stephen Mildenhall, an actuary and risk management professor at St. John’s University in New York. “To the extent that there’s a sexy part of actuarial jobs, it’s the part that data science is doing.”
Actuaries have a time-honored stereotype as socially-awkward nerds. Some in the business revel in the exaggeration. When Hollywood in 2002 released “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson as an awkward actuary with a terrible comb-over, the SOA released a sublimely geeky retort: “Portrayal of actuaries as math-obsessed, socially disconnected individuals with shockingly bad comb-overs is 97.28892 percent incorrect.”
New actuaries with the highest credentials, or fellows, typically earn $125,000 to $175,000, plus bonus, said Pauline Reimer, managing director of industry recruiter Pryor Associates. A significant number earn as much as $500,000 and $1,000-an-hour actuaries are not uncommon, said William Fornia, a pension industry actuary outside of Denver.
“We’re well-paid, and if a data scientist can do 60 percent of what we do and do it cheaper, that’s a threat to us,” Fornia said. “We have to add value over what we do.”
Their enviable salaries owe partly to the length of their studies and to their rarity. Becoming a full fellow requires passing a series of exams that often take seven years to complete, although people usually work full time while studying.
Howsden left his actuarial analyst job without getting full certification after being discouraged by the lack of originality in insurance. While studying for his actuarial exams, he pursued novel ways to construct risk models and probabilities of life expectancy. When he got on the job, though, everything seemed formulaic.
“Once you got into insurance, it got into ad hoc things like Excel,” he said. “Most of it was just pulling data down from the servers.”
The Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society are responding to the boom in data science by offering more predictive analytics coursework, which uses data to forecast outcomes. They’re also trying to expand their reach into industries other than insurance, said SOA President Jim Glickman.
Mary Pat Campbell, a longtime actuary now doing insurance research, is seeing more ads pushing the benefits of actuaries to banks and hedge funds, she said. She has seen younger actuaries departing for sexier industries like data science, akin to the way actuaries left for tech firms back in the 1990s. Similar to the tech bubble then, she thinks it may be a passing phase.
“Actuaries have been doing data science for years,” Mildenhall said, “but didn’t know to package it up as ‘data science.’ ”
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