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Society of Actuaries President: Adaptability and Creativity are Key Skills for Actuaries

Actuaries need to adapt and “get up to speed” with new skills as artificial intelligence and data science present new challenges. Special Section sponsored by Johnson Lambert.
  • John Weber
  • December 2021
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The Auditors and Actuaries Special Section is sponsored by Johnson Lambert.

Actuaries, by their very nature, are numbers people. So it should come as no surprise that one of the first things you'll find when you access the Society of Actuaries home page is a number touting how many SOA members there are. It's about 31,000 worldwide, with about 20,000 in the U.S.

With such a large workforce, Jennifer L. Gillespie, who began her one-year term as president and chair of the Society of Actuaries at the end of October, said the industry needs to develop new skills as artificial intelligence, emerging technology and data science present new challenges. Following is an edited transcript of Gillespie's interview with AM Best TV.

You were a health actuary at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. How did that prepare you to become president of SOA?

Well, obviously I was an actuary and then I had leadership roles at Blue Cross. I spent a long time as the vice president of underwriting, which meant that I dealt with a lot of other audiences as well. So I dealt with major national employers, providers, sales people and I think having the opportunity to deal with people with lots of different backgrounds really prepared me well.

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You were also a volunteer for the SOA. Will that experience help you in your role as president?

Absolutely. I served on the board for five years, two of those years as secretary/treasurer. I am also a volunteer on the education side. I do a lot of professionalism education for the Society of Actuaries. Then over the course of being on the board, you resource a lot of committees. So I've gotten to have exposure to the whole breadth of what the SOA does.

Jennifer L. Gillespie Society of Actuaries

I do think being curious and being creative are things that are really important to adapting in the worlds that we work in now.

Jennifer L. Gillespie
Society of Actuaries

What are the issues actuaries are facing, especially SOA members?

There are plenty of challenges. Obviously, COVID was a big one for everybody in every industry, but we also have real issues with the amount of artificial intelligence and data science that are coming into our places of employment. So it's really important that actuaries adapt to that and get up to speed with the new skills.

You mentioned COVID. How has the pandemic affected actuaries, and the SOA in particular?

So one of the really big focuses for the Society of Actuaries is the education of actuaries and suddenly we couldn't gather all of our candidates to take an exam, having everyone in one place. That was a very immediate crisis. We were able to work with our testing partner Prometric, who has centers around the world, and find enough seats for people to actually get to them. Some people were delayed in taking exams, but there was some adaptation of exams that hadn't been given in that format before so they could be given there. That was one of our immediate things. We hold conferences—of course, you had to go to virtual conferences and try to make them creative, engaging and all of that. Our board members, we met on Zoom. So just like people were doing in their jobs, we were adapting in all those same ways.

Are there any things that you learned over these past 18 months or so that you'll be implementing at the society when we're on the other side of COVID?

Absolutely. So I mentioned our meetings, our big conferences—we had really high attendance since there are people who can't take the time away or don't like to fly or whatever. It keeps them from going to our conferences in person, but they were very happy to be able to attend virtually.

So I think going forward we will try to have a rich hybrid model so that we can serve both needs. With our education, by using our Prometric testing centers, they have Word and Excel on computers, so we can provide every candidate with the same tools so it's a really level playing field around the world and we can make better use of those tools than when we just had people in a conference room in some office building. I think it will make our exams more relevant and more a level playing field.

On the professionalism education I mentioned, we had to turn that virtual as well. So I participated a lot in small group sessions late in the evening when we did sessions for our candidates in Asia and we will probably have some of that that continues. But people are anxious to get back in person as well. I think offering choices will be one of the things we do.

Creativity isn't the first adjective that comes to mind when talking about actuarial science, but I've heard you say it's important for actuaries to be creative. How so?

Like you said, it's not one of the first things people think of, but when we get feedback from employers about what skills they need the actuaries to have, adaptability is one of those top things we hear. So if they're going to be building models or working with people that are building models, they need to be creative about how can we do this, how can we do it ethically, how can we use the data appropriately. What other options are there for making something more efficient? So I do think being curious and being creative are things that are really important to adapting in the worlds that we work in now.

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I understand you're a figure skating judge. How did that come to be?

It's not because I'm a really good figure skater—that's what everyone thinks first. I'm really a student of the sport. I love the sport of figure skating. I was actually chief referee at a figure skating competition recently. I'm absolutely still volunteering in that way as well.

Is there any correlation between being a figure skating judge and being an actuary or being a figure skating judge and president of the SOA?

Maybe a little bit. In some ways, it's a really nice break from one to the other because they're different. When we judge, we just have to react to what we see; we don't get all the information, we just have to make a decision and that's true for actuaries. We don't always have all the information we want in order to set rates for the future. So some of that ability to make those kind of decisions probably is a shared characteristic.

So what are your goals for your term as SOA president?

Well one of the things that's really important is we often think that when a president comes in they are controlling the agenda for the year and you're only president for a year. You'll be president-elect and then you'll be past-president, but the board sets a strategic plan and really it's the president to help further that plan. It's important to me that we have a wonderfully diverse board that's been elected and I want to make sure that we're hearing all those voices, that we're including the perspectives of people that aren't on the board. It's how we make the decisions that I'm really passionate about. I'm excited to jump in and start working on the strategic plan that the whole board accepted.

John Robinson is the president-elect and he comes to that position recently retiring as an actuary from the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Is there some requirement that SOA presidents have to have a Minnesota connection?

Yes, and one of our other folks that was a candidate the last two years is also in Minnesota. So I do suggest if you want to be successful in the election that you move to Minnesota.


John Weber is a senior associate editor. He can be reached at john.weber@ambest.com.



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