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Jill Wagman, managing principal of Eckler Ltd., might never have begun her career as an actuary if her high school guidance counsellor hadn't suggested it. I was strong in mathematics, she says, and the counsellor told me about the actuarial science program at the University of Waterloo. She also recommended the co-op component to prep me for working in the field.

The definition of an actuary? "It's complicated," Wagman asserts, whose speciality is pensions. "We're often mistaken for accountants, but actuaries use statistics and mathematical models to take past experience and use it to predict future outcomes."

Sharon Giffen, president of Foresters Canada and life-insurance expert, quips, "it's a relatively unknown profession, and yet it exerts an influential force globally. Actuaries with their dedicated knowledge of mathematics, statistics, and risk theory help solve problems faced by pension plans, government regulators, social programs, and individuals. They assess, quantify, and manage the financial implications of uncertain future events," Giffen explains. "They develop models to help businesses project future cash flows, based on historical data. Many factors must be weighed and analyzed, such as the probability of inflation and a person's future state of health, in order to predict an optimal current action."

Besides mathematics, actuaries have highly developed computer skills, a practical business sense, and the creativity to apply training and experience to new problems and provide innovative solutions. With excellent communication skills, they help people plan better for the future by controlling or reducing financial risks associated with retirement, sickness, disability, unemployment, property loss and damage, investment policy, premature death, or extended life expectancy.

A challenging career, the actuary's education doesn't stop after university. Undergraduate programs prepare students for the series of rigorous post-university exams required to gain full accreditation as a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (US) and the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (Canada), a process that can take three to five years, or longer. To keep current, actuaries continue their education with courses after the exam process.

But, yes, there are rewards! Entry-level actuaries, upon completing one to two exams and gaining some experience, can earn between $50,000 and 65,000 annually. In addition, study time and exam costs are traditionally at the employer's expense. Fully qualified with seasoned experience, one can expect to bring in over $100,000. Wagman says that the field offers tremendous variety, including advancement to senior management and executive positions. Thirty-six per cent of actuaries work in pensions, while 40 per cent work in life insurance; the remainder thrive in other businesses. Giffen believes that the banking industry will use actuaries in the near future.

Wagman and Giffen both agree that women, in particular, have an edge in the actuarial field. "On the consulting side, women tend to be strong communicators, more perceptive of their clients' needs, and empathetic, which is key," Wagman notes.

"Fortunately, the profession is gender-blind," Giffen adds. "The technical component is the same for men and women, but women tend to focus better, in my opinion, and they tend to have a more holistic way of thinking, which is necessary in order to synthesize a lot of information into an optimal course of action."

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