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Ask an Actuary

Thomas Wendling

Ask an Actuary

Thomas E. Wendling P.E., is a Systems Engineer at CH2M in Alexandria, VA.

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

I first learned what an actuary was shortly after someone accused me of being one. I vigorously denied being anything of the kind, but I looked it up to be sure. It turned out that I had improvised an application of probability mathematics to the pricing of service contracts that fit squarely into the domain of what actuaries do. It was less of a decision as much as a realization that my accuser was right. I decided to take the exams.

Q: Who or what influenced your decision?

Attaining a respected professional status to match my habit of doing math in a business setting aligned perfectly with my career goals. At times I had doubts that what I was studying could ever be used outside of insurance, but I quickly found out that was simply not true.

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

I graduated with a B.S. in Physics from Virginia Commonwealth University, an M.S. in Systems Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic University, and an M.I.M. (Masters in International Management) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. My internship was with a company that manufactured industrial combustion equipment, and I worked as an engineering draftsman.

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?

Business school was very helpful, but I value my undergraduate physics classes even more. I believe that physics provides a theoretical framework that can be applied through actuarial science to solve problems in an original way. History of Western Civilization was also a good class for me. Learning about intellectual progress over the centuries helped me to understand the historical significance of the actuarial profession, and to see the big picture in what we do.

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?

Please see my answer to question #8.

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

Yes. No second thoughts.

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 began the exams ten years ago, and am still working to finish them all. The education provided by the exams has been very helpful for my work. Actuarial exams are probably the most rigorous business education available today.

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

I came to the actuarial profession late. The first half of my career was spent as an engineer and salesman. I sold machinery, such as the kind used in water treatment plants. The sales job became more and more commercial, and I began to be involved in contract negotiation and pricing of capital equipment, infrastructure, and the extended service contracts that go along with them.

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

I lead the pricing of long-term extended service contracts for capital infrastructure at CH2M. I am part of a team that hatches bold new delivery methods to transform the physical infrastructure that allows our global society to thrive. It is definitely a non-traditional role for an actuary, but the way we use statistics, probability, and simulation to price 50 year service contracts has an undeniably actuarial flavor to it.

Q: How long have you been in the profession?

10 years.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

Work satisfaction comes from a sense of creating order form disorder, and passion comes from finding meaning in what you do. I get both from my job, and becoming an actuary has been an important part of it.

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

If you are just starting your career, go for a role in the insurance industry. It is still the best place for actuaries to receive the highest valuation for their skill set and be paid well. If you already have a career, if insurance is not your thing, or if you want to be a pioneer, then combine actuarial science with what you already do. The basic actuarial education provides an ample toolkit that, if applied fundamentally in other industries, might result in groundbreaking innovations to help solve important and vexing societal problems outside of insurance that currently lack theoretical foundation.