WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH
When you tell someone you’re an actuary, there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a blank stare. Just ask Katie Dobbs ’02, an actuary at Cherion Inc. in Chicago. “I always get a confused look from people outside of the profession,” she says.
But with an average starting salary of around $50,000 and glowing ratings by both Jobs Rated Almanac and The Wall Street Journal, both of which call it the number one job to have, based on job security, outlook, level of stress, and compensation, actuary is a term people are becoming more and more familiar with.
Robert Morris University has one of the fastest growing and most respected actuarial science programs in the country. The program began in 2001 with just two students; last fall, 38 freshmen enrolled. Recently, it received national recognition when RMU was designated as a Center of Actuarial Excellence by the Society of Actuaries, an honor shared by only 11 other universities in the United States, among them Temple, St. John’s, and Michigan.
“We are extremely pleased and honored,” says Leonard A. Asimow, Ph.D., professor of actuarial science and mathematics and the founding director of RMU’s actuarial science program. “When we first started recruitment in 2001, we had no idea that our efforts would culminate in so prestigious an award in just nine years. It means a great deal to us going forward. Not only is this an affirmation of the hard work of many people, but it will provide a foundation for our future growth and development.”
Actuaries are experts on risk. Most work in the insurance industry, where they help design health and retirement benefit plans by determining premiums and profit margins, and making recommendations based upon their calculations. For example, they may create an actuarial table to determine life expectancies for a group of people over a period of time, based on current mortality rates. Many also work for human resource consulting firms; however, since most companies deal with some kind of risk, the job opportunities for actuaries in all industries – particularly health care – is steadily growing.
“Health care is getting more and more complex and risky,” says Bill Sarniak, a senior markets actuary and vice president at Highmark in Pittsburgh. “That’s where actuaries thrive.”
Several leading national actuarial employers call Pittsburgh home, including Towers Watson, Mercer, Buck Consultants, UPMC, and Highmark. And in the actuarial industry, regionally and beyond, RMU’s graduates are highly sought after.
“RMU’s candidates are more prepared for the business world,” says Sarniak. “Our job is really half math, half business. RMU’s students have a strong foundation in business, and because of the internships that are available to them, they get that valuable practical experience, too.” Each year, over the past five years, Highmark has hired at least one RMU graduate for a full-time position, and they always try to get one or two interns as well.
Asimow came to RMU from Maryville University in St. Louis, where, as director of the actuarial science program he first met Mark M. Maxwell, Ph.D., a mathematics professor. Maxwell migrated to RMU in 2000 and immediately began to revitalize the university’s dormant actuarial science concentration. In the spring of 2001, he recruited Dobbs and Jill Gifford ’02 from Maryville as his first students in RMU’s program, and Asimow followed shortly thereafter.
Together, Maxwell and Asimow designed RMU’s actuarial program to have a strong mathematical foundation, with an emphasis on business and communications skills, and a focus on preparing students for their professional exams.
Dobbs works primarily as a consultant, assessing the risks that her clients’ pension plans are sensitive to, monitoring the future outlook of the plans, and making sure they meet all of the legislative requirements. She credits RMU’s well-rounded curriculum with helping her find success so soon after graduation. “Some schools focus on just the mathematics behind actuarial science,” she says. “But, the actuarial profession is also built on business and communication skills, which RMU supports as well.”
“Actuarial students not only need a strong mathematical aptitude but in general, they need to have very good problem solving skills,” says David G. Hudak, Ph.D., associate professor and the program’s current director. “Our program, tied together with the general curriculum, provides RMU’s actuarial students with a great opportunity to develop these critical skills.”
The program also offers students many opportunities for paid internships, which usually result in job offers at graduation. "Without a doubt, my experience and what I learned there allowed me to hit the ground running right out of school," says Ian Laverty ‘06, an actuary at Western & Southern Life in Cincinnati. "From graduation, I was ahead of most of my entry-level peers at my company.”
Allison Freeman ’08 is an actuary at Erie Insurance, where she did an internship in the summer of 2006. She says RMU’s annual Actuarial Career Day was a major selling point for her. “It helps students get internships and interview experience early in their college careers,” she says. This year’s event is October 1, in Sewall Center, and as many as 20 local and national employers are expected to attend.
Jessica Kachur ’07, is a perfect example of how RMU’s program is built to help its students succeed. The university recruited her in high school because of her strong math skills. “It really intrigued me,” she says. “I always wanted to be in the math field, but I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher. This just seemed like the right fit.”
While studying at RMU, Kachur had a paid internship with Mercer Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Pittsburgh. Mercer hired her following graduation, and today she’s an associate, calculating liabilities for pension plans and determining employer contributions. It’s challenging work, but she says she’s well prepared to meet that challenge. “You have to have a lot of personal determination and commitment, especially when it comes to the exams. But RMU makes sure you know what to expect and how to succeed.”