Jon Smith

My role

I chose a career as an actuary because I was looking for a career that was well regarded, well paid and would also bring real intellectual challenge on a day to day basis. I also wanted a career that would involve client contact, rather than being purely technical. Working for an actuarial pensions consultancy involves both.

I work in Towers Watson’s Investment Strategy team. My role is to help large institutional investors (usually pension schemes, but also charities and sovereign wealth funds) decide where to put their money. The aim is to help them ensure over the long term that they have enough money put aside to pay out the pensions (or any other commitments they have) when they are due. This means helping them understand the risk in their investments and looking for ways to make their money work harder. To do this we use a combination of complex mathematical modelling and qualitative reasoning. The challenge is to then communicate the results of our analysis in a way that is easy for the client to understand.

Communication

At Towers Watson we tend to only work with clients who want to put in place a sophisticated investment strategy. This means getting your head around some really complex investment products such as swaps, options or other non-mainstream asset types. As well as having to be able to understand how these assets work, we have to come up with an efficient way of modelling how they are likely to perform over many years into the future. This can be really challenging, especially if you are looking into an asset type that you have never seen before.

Quite often there is no ‘correct’ solution to the problems we are trying to solve and sometimes our model produces results that can be hard to explain. At the end of the day a model is only an approximation and should never be relied on solely when giving advice. Communicating this uncertainty to clients can also be a real challenge.

Project work

My most fulfilling project to date was advising one of the biggest pension schemes in the country on their investment strategy. The pension scheme was huge – several billions of pounds, and it had thousands of members. Knowing that the work we were doing would have an impact on the future financial well-being of so many people was really exciting. Also, the size of the client meant that the project had many different aspects to consider, and as such it was a massive learning experience for me.

It is important to be numerate to be a successful actuary, as a lot of what we do involves some fairly complex maths. However, as my job also requires me to communicate what we do to those who may be less technically minded, softer skills, such as presenting and writing clear reports, are increasingly valued in our profession.

Qualifications

I have recently qualified as an actuary, which required four years worth of exams and a lot of hard work. Towers Watson gave me a lot of support, including days off to study.

The exams were a real challenge and given the low pass rates and time taken to qualify, I was really proud (and relieved) when I finally got my FIA. However, if you are considering a career as an actuary don’t let the exams put you off. You do have to be quite resilient to get through them though. Nearly everyone fails at least one exam, and most fail two or three times. For some people in the profession this is their first experience of failing an exam, however it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.

So, they do take a long time to get through, but you are progressing with your career the whole time and getting paid a full time salary. Coming up to exam time you will probably have to do some study outside normal working hours, but this is more than made up for by the privilege of being able have a long lie in one day a week for the first four years of your career when everyone else is off to work!

Once qualified (which usually takes three to six years) you do tend to work slightly longer hours. Since qualifying I would say I work around 09.00–18.00 on average, but hours do tend to vary a lot depending on the demands of our clients.

The future

Having moved over from our Benefits practice (in a more traditional pensions actuary role) only a year ago, I plan to stay in Towers Watson Investment practice for a few more years at least. As my career develops I hope to take the lead on more projects and begin to use my investment knowledge to develop more sophisticated investment strategy solutions for clients on my own.

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