Peter Galvin - Consulting Actuary

Peter Galvin - Consulting Actuary

I’m a UK qualified actuary from Ireland, and I have worked in Australia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. I took an artistic detour from the actuarial scene and got involved in acting and performed in Off-West End comedy plays. I’m trying to return to the actuarial scene again.

Actors are masters of communication because their livelihood depends on it. From the outside it seems easy. However, to make an audience listen to your performance it requires numerous skills in; voice projection; stage presence; and lightning-quick thinking in applying appropriate spontaneity. Initially, my performances exhibited rational thinking which did not connect with the audience; rational thinking just doesn’t work in the performance domain. While it may seem the audience are listening, in practice, your words are just noise.

Through acting I learnt how to think more impulsively, how to generate stage presence and to absorb text at an instinctual level.

What does that transition back into being an actuary look like for you?

The feedback I receive from hiring managers is that while acting is an interesting departure from the actuarial field, most don't believe it adds value. The primary requirement is for up-to-date technical skills and view non-technical skills as “nice to have”. Non-technical skills are perceived as being easy to learn, but to acquire these skills takes much practice. However, the overarching focus is on technical skills.

I've completed Python and Java programming courses and I’m beginning to get traction for software development roles. The mainstream view is that actuaries are backroom insurance technicians. Unless we include wider influences and expand beyond our technical skills this label is unlikely to change, making admittance into wider fields more difficult to achieve.

What do you see as key characteristics of innovative actuaries?

In my view, innovative actuaries are those that can introduce external concepts/influences and integrate them into the profession. The past IFoA President, Tan Suee Chieh, was a prominent insurance leader and took a career break to complete a doctorate in psychology. Previous presidents mostly discuss existing actuarial frameworks and retain the status quo. Tan Suee brought this fresh approach, which is, “I know how people perceive us, we have lost our leading position, we should embrace new ways of thinking to avoid losing further influence.” 

Actuaries were great innovators in the past but then we halted development, and it was mostly taken over by other institutions. Tan Suee energetically highlighted that we need to rediscover innovative thinking and break away from rote process. 

What factors do you believe influence the impact actuaries can have within their organization?

This is a complex topic. The factors influencing an organization’s output depends on its culture, management hierarchy, external stakeholders and the personality of key individuals.

Actuaries are generally risk averse and retain historical processes, and that does not lead to significant impacts. Board level or senior management decisions can be significant, but they may avoid choices that are expensive, difficult to implement, and risk failure. Generally, actuaries may restrict themselves and the organization may be culturally inclined to make decisions which dampens impact.

"You need a unique set of skills to bring a concept to fruition and have an impact on an organization. "

How can actuaries gain more influence? A lot of senior hires tend to come from strategy consultants, they seem to have the breadth of technical and soft skills that enables their message to be heard. Should actuaries acquire the skills the strategy consultants possess in order to get heard? How are actuaries perceived within the organization? Are they participating in innovative projects? Do they have strong decision-making skills? 

To give an example; For years the prevailing view was that the UK market had too many insurance companies and needed to consolidate but relatively little happened. A non-actuary created the first closed book consolidator, and now, closed-book consolidation is popular and capital has flowed into the sector. You need a unique set of skills to bring a concept to fruition and have an impact on an organization. 

What are some key ways you see the actuarial profession evolving in the next few years?

Actuaries have a tough exam system and are valued for succeeding through that. However, I think the market and participants will question the value it provides. Online education is leading to an evaluation of formal academic qualifications.

Can online training systems lead to training in the flow of work? The underlying task creates the training requirement rather than having a one size fits all formal syllabus. Can online systems reduce the training cost? 

Oracle and MicroSoft have software examinations but the market places little value on these. Could the actuarial exam be viewed that way? Is it desired? Probably not, but will the future push the exams in that direction?  

Students considering the profession may question the value of time invested in exams compared to more attractive options. Currently, a student can enter software development and after two years earn just as much as an actuary (if they are talented). 

If we don’t expand our skillset, I see the profession relying on statutory work. This will reinforce the impression that we are insurance technicians.

What advice would you give someone returning to the actuarial profession? To someone considering starting an actuarial career?

Acquire as many skills as you can. If you were pricing before you left, it could have changed significantly since then making your return difficult. If you have some wider skills, like programming, then you can return as a developer. So, diversify your skill set as much as you can.

For fresh recruits, the exams are less important outside the profession. If the exams take too much out of your life, take a hard look, is it worth it? I talked to a part qualified actuary who is managing projects, managing other actuaries, receiving good feedback and there is no value in further study. It doesn't impede him. Obtain a portfolio of marketable work and repeatedly perform a cost/benefit analysis on the exams. Exam success does not equate to career success.

How do you believe data science and actuarial science could collaborate more effectively?

I think data science is a new job title because actuaries have been performing data science work for years. They have been analyzing claims data etc. in order to obtain new premium ratings. It just hasn't been publicized as data science and actuaries haven't utilized software to manage large data sets to gain greater insights. 

Unfortunately, actuaries mostly used spreadsheets which limited their ability to produce results and limit their use to reserving and pricing. There was an opportunity there for actuaries to popularize the benefits of actuarial techniques (invent data science!) if they had access to the technology. 

Life companies are now hiring data scientists to complement the actuarial skill set. Data science and actuarial science skills are very similar, actuaries just did not utilize the opportunity.

What makes innovation impactful?

If it ignites changes in the wider community. For example, Nicholas Taleb authored a book titled “Black Swan”, which delved into randomness and described how the standard models used by financial institutions underestimate the frequency of catastrophic events. This book on mathematics was a huge hit! He ripped apart current modelling techniques and described how they generate greater risks within the system.

He brought obscure topics such as non-Gaussian distributions into the mainstream and challenged current thinking. 

What is the best type of change that actuaries can adopt to become more influential?

Obtain skills outside the actuarial arena. Actuaries’ analysis skills and rigorous approach can bring enormous value into other areas. Conversely, we are not skilled in certain topics, and we will not understand them through formal study. We can only gain that understanding through experience. It will improve our broader appeal and increase our perspective.