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Ask an Actuary

Nate Clay

Ask an Actuary

Nate Clay, ASA, MAAA, is an associate actuary at
Protective Life Corp in Birmingham, AL.

Q: When did you first decide to become an actuary?

I first became aware of the actuarial profession as a senior in high school. So from that point on, it was always a career option, but I made a definite decision to become an actuary after graduating from undergraduate college and working as an assistant branch manager at a local bank in my home state of Mississippi. The focus of my position was customer service, but I was interested in doing more back office financial analysis work. So after a year of being in that position, I fully decided to pursue the actuarial career and attend graduate school for actuarial science.

Q: Who or what influenced your decision?

To be honest, initially, it was financial security, and for most students living in poorer areas, the illusion of financial security is usually what drives them to pursue certain professions such as professional sports or professions within the entertainment industry. I tried to be a little more practical and remember finding out about the actuarial profession from asking my Statistics teacher what job I could get with a Math degree that made a lot of money. She told me that her brother was an actuary and made really good money. Although the financial incentive was an important motivating factor initially, as I've progressed in my career, I've found that the financial incentive becomes less motivating compared to the challenge and accomplishment of just passing exams. It is my belief that the difficulty of actuarial exams warrants a deeper motivation and drive than just financial gain to be able to put in the level of work and studying needed to successfully pass exams.

Q: What is your educational background? Where did you attend college, and what was your major? Did you have any internships during college?

I attended Grinnell College, which is a small liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa, where I majored in Math and Economics. I also completed a year graduate school at Ball State University in their actuarial science master's program before leaving to start in my first entry level actuarial position. My first internship within the actuarial field actually wasn't a traditional actuarial internship, where most companies recruit from schools with actuarial science programs and recruit students with at least 1 or 2 exams passed. While in undergrad at Grinnell, I received a diversity scholarship from Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, IA which included a summer internship opportunity with the company and I actually ended up being placed with the actuarial department via that program. I also had a summer actuarial internship while in graduate school with Great American Financial Resources located in Cincinnati, OH.

Q: What classes did you take in college that helped prepare you for the career? What class was most helpful? What non-quantitative classes were helpful?

The classes that were particularly helpful in preparing me for my career were classes in Statistics and Probability, Accounting, and Financial Analytics/Mathematics. Statistics and Probability and Financial Analytics/Mathematics courses were helpful in preparing for the first two actuarial exams while the classes in Accounting were extremely beneficial in general for my career in developing the knowledge and understanding of how to read financial statements. The most important non-quantitative classes I took were in Computer Science. Today, so much actuarial work revolves around coding up VBA macros or SQL data pulls or actuarial functions within actuarial projection software. The ability to understand coding languages has been one of the most invaluable skills that I've used throughout my career.

Q: What was your first job in the profession? How did you get the job? Did you start as an intern or in an actuarial training program? What type of work did you perform in you first actuarial job?

My first job in the profession was as an actuarial analyst at Transamerica Life Insurance. I worked in the annuity valuation and financial reporting department. I worked primarily on the financial reporting and modeling of Institutional/Stable Value products including Guaranteed Investment Contract (GICs) and Municipal contracts. After a while I also had the opportunity to do financial reporting and modeling work for immediate annuities.

Q: Was the job like you expected? Did you have any second thoughts?

It was pretty much as I expected. During the interview process, I was given a pretty clear picture of the responsibilities of my role. Transamerica was in the process of transferring the financial reporting and modeling work for their Institutional/Stable Value products to the Cedar Rapids, IA location, and I was essentially tasked with being a sponge and absorbing/learning as much as I could about the process and then tasked with working to transition those processes. I didn't have any second thoughts due to the fact that I had experience in another field (local banking), and enjoyed doing actuarial work much more than the work from my previous position.

Q: When did you take your first exam? How long did it take for you to get through the exam process? Did you find studying for exams to be very helpful for your work?

I took my first exam while in undergrad but passed my first exam after I had graduated from Grinnell and started working. I'm not finished with the exam process yet. It's been 6 years so far, and I'm working on my second fellowship exam. The exams are the foundation for the work we do, and I use the concepts I learned while taking exams on a daily basis.

Q: What was your career path from your first job to your current position?

I have a bit of a checkered career path where I moved a number of times and into different fields and positions with different companies. I started at Transamerica Life Insurance Company in Cedar Rapids, IA working in their annuity financial reporting and valuation department working with institutional products and immediate annuities. Next, I moved to Milwaukee, WI and began working in the health insurance field with Assurant Health working on Sales Distribution Analytics and Pharmacy Risk Management. After working there for a while, I transitioned back to life insurance and began working in Experience Studies at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Finally, I made a move closer to my home state of Mississippi and began working for Protective Life in Birmingham, AL, focusing mainly on annuity pricing.

Q: What type of work do you do on a day-to-day basis in your current position?

Within my current position, I focus mainly on pricing new annuity products or re-pricing existing annuity products. The day-to-day activities of pricing include reviewing recent experience to update assumptions used in pricing projection models for things such as lapses, mortality, or utilization of certain product features. It also includes setting up and running financial projections, reviewing the results of those projections, and presenting those results to the product manager to discuss the impact of varying various assumptions and product features modeled within the projections. This is a cycle that is continued until a final product along with its pricing is established.

Q: How long have you been in the profession?

I have been in the profession for 6 years.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

My favorite aspect of my job is the opportunity to work on the IT side of things as it relates to actuarial work. Over my career, I've come to really enjoy coding actuarial projection models and other coding work such as SQL data extraction and manipulation and automating Excel processes using VBA macros. After being in my career for some years now, one thing I wish I would've done more of in college is take more Computer Science courses to have an even stronger foundation of those skills.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are interested in becoming an actuary?

My main advice would be to focus on passing exams as priority number one. From what I've seen from employers, that tends to be the number one item they look for when recruiting entry level candidates. After that, be sure to take courses in Accounting and Computer Science to build foundational sills that will be needed for a career as an actuary.