Name: Lloyd Richards
Company: Barnett Waddingham LLP
Job: Actuarial assistant
Lloyd Richards is an actuarial assistant at Barnett Waddingham, an independent firm of consulting actuaries based in London. Lloyd studied Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics at the University of Warwick, and joined Barnett Waddingham straight out of university. His work experience includes working as an ice rink steward and a manual labourer.
Hello. What do you do?
I work as an Actuarial Assistant for Barnett Waddingham, an independent firm of consulting actuaries.
Story so far:
I began work here straight from university (BSc Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics at the University of Warwick), so this is the only graduate position I’ve held. My previous work experience throughout GCSEs, A Levels and University includes 6 years working in various restaurants as a chef, 3 years working as an ice rink steward during holiday periods and regular contracted manual labor from age 18-21 (all of those jobs overlapped at one point or another).
What does an actuary do then?
The actuarial website says “actuaries use their mathematical skills to help measure the probability and risk of future events”. Essentially that is what I do. Traditionally, actuaries work in one of pensions, insurance or investment. I work as a pensions actuary, and the most significant part of the job is estimating the liabilities of defined benefit (DB) pension schemes. DB schemes promise to pay their members a proportion of their final salary on retirement, for every year they’ve been a member. So the actuary needs to make estimates about how much a member’s salary will grow before retirement, what future inflation will be (so we can determine the cost in real terms), what investment return can be achieved on any money the scheme holds to pay the benefit, and the mortality of the member. With thousands of members in such schemes the mathematics involved can become quite challenging, so actuaries should have a strong mathematical background. Mathematics, statistics, physics and economics are the prevalent degrees but are not essential. A friend of mine has recently started work after completing an English literature degree.
Of course this isn't all I do. There are a huge amount of jobs involved in being a pensions consultant, which range from complicated calculations to acting more like a GP for pension scheme trustees. During the latest round of quantitative easing a client called me to ask what exactly it meant for his scheme. We might also receive requests to clarify minor legal points or give basic information about the scheme from time to time.
What’s a day like for you?
I'm an early riser so I often leave the house between 7 and 7.30 and arrive at the office 7.30-8. Don’t worry, this is quite uncommon for actuaries! In fact I had to request an office key as I’m regularly the first to arrive. Most of the team arrive between 8.30 and 9. The first thing I do is catch up on emails and have a quick look at some pensions news websites. Monitoring the news is one of a few roles which get divided around the office, so part of my job is to update the rest of my team if there are any important stories. This is usually done before anyone else arrives. Most of the morning will then be spent with plenty of spreadsheets open estimating liabilities, calculating transfer values (the amount of money a member can take when they leave a scheme), and monitoring investment returns.
At 12.30 I either head to the gym or go to play football with my colleagues. Lunch is then a quick sandwich when I get back to my desk. Fortunately we have a shower in the office.
In the afternoon I might continue with the morning’s calculations or produce a report for a client. This might be a one line email to present a simple unaudited figure, or a 20 page document just to set out the assumptions I’ve used to calculate something else. There is a lot of legislation surrounding the advice we give, and one of the main aims in this is ensuring that trustees fully understand how we arrive at our assumptions of future economic conditions, because they are the people who ultimately decide how to proceed. I almost always leave the office at 5.15. Most people leave before 6.00. Of our contractual hours (7 hours 15 minutes each day) we’re expected to bill around 5 hours, with the remaining time being spent making tea and coffee (lots of coffee!) and doing miscellaneous tasks like filing, checking emails, making a quick phone call that’s not worth billing, that sort of thing. It’s surprising how much time these small tasks can take up.
After work, if it’s within about a month of exams I’ll spend most evenings studying, otherwise I’ll either go out or head home and relax. Occasionally there are big social events we all attend as a group (either actuarial events like roller discos and black-tie balls attended by hundreds of actuaries, or a professional contact taking us out to build relationships).
My hours are 7 hours and 15 minutes each day, with “core hours” of 10:00 to 16:15 (so I could work from 8:00-16:15 or 10:00-18:15).
I usually work extra hours and have occasionally put in a 13 hour day, but nobody is expected to work much longer other than in exceptional circumstances. For me it is personal preference.
When I tried to work a long day in the week before an exam my team leader told me off and sent me home.
Is there much variety?
Many of the calculations we do are relatively similar, but every pension scheme has its little quirks that make them different enough to not get boring. Communication and presentation of results might be a conversation with a Partner, a brief email to summarise some results, a formal document, or a presentation.
Who do you encounter during your work day?
One of the great things about the actuarial profession is how friendly and helpful people are. We all pool knowledge and share experience so that everyone can be more effective at their jobs. All actuarial work is checked before it’s presented to clients, so it’s in the interest of the person who will check the work to ensure the junior people understand exactly what they’re doing. Of course there are times when people are simply too busy to offer advice, but these are rare. Because of the ethos of teamwork I am constantly interacting with my actuarial colleagues. Interaction with other advisors is also common. I will often send an email or make a phone call to investment managers requesting data from them. Many of our actuarial clients have appointed Barnett Waddingham as their administrators, but not all, and we often need data from them to begin our calculations. It’s much easier when I can pop downstairs and ask the administrator in person but most other administrators are only too happy to help. After all this is their client too. We may also need to talk to lawyers for clarification of certain points, though this is less common.
Interaction with clients is usually more formal, through regular trustee meetings, emails and phone calls.
Do you oversee anyone else?
Many of the projects we do require the teamwork of several people. It will not necessarily be the most senior person who is ‘in charge’ of the project. On a project I’m currently working on I have one of our new graduates doing most of the calculations while I check them, document all the work and write the reports. I then need a fully qualified actuary to check the compliance of any wording with Technical Actuarial Standards. I have to make sure everything is completed by the deadline, but because we all work right next to each other the management of the task is very easy to do and I can get a verbal report daily if required. If I’m out and the graduate hits a stumbling block she’ll email me a description of the problem and we discuss it together later. One or two other people are occasionally involved with minor tasks on an ad-hoc basis.
How do you organise your work?
Usually by how close the deadline is! When working on a large project, the small jobs can build up so I always allow two half days a week to keep on top of them. A trustee who asks a question that takes 5 minutes to answer will be a bit annoyed if I take a week to respond, but somebody expecting results from me in a week won’t mind waiting an extra 5 minutes.
What’s your office like?
The office is very open plan to allow us to collaborate freely. My colleagues are all very friendly and easy to work and socialise with, and on the whole you can chat freely to anyone about work or anything else. The team is about 1/3 qualified and 2/3 students.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
My favourite part of the job is the fact that I’m never bored at work. There's always enough to keep me occupied, and more importantly keep my mind engaged, without it ever getting overwhelming.
And your least favourite?
I enjoy the time I get off work to study, although perhaps a little incongruously my least favourite part of the job is having to pass exams. GCSE, A-Level and University students will all have known weeks before exams feeling guilt any time you’re enjoying yourself because you should be studying. Twice a year I have the same feeling whilst preparing for exams.
Who else might be suited to what you do?
The actuarial profession is suited to those with a keen mathematical instinct who are not only able to construct complicated and highly involved models, but also explain them to people who often have no mathematical understanding.
Members of the profession must complete some of the most taxing professional exams in the UK, completion of which takes an average of 5 years after graduation.
The profession is therefore suited to people who want to study the ideas of financial mathematics and statistics beyond degree level, and get paid to do so! Most firms operate generous study packages, usually involving one day off each week for study and paying for all study materials and exam entrance fees.
Barnett Waddingham in particular is suited to those who appreciate or require a reasonable work life balance. In my two years here I have never felt pressured to work extra hours, and particularly around exam time the qualified members of the team are happy to pick up the slack to ensure those of us with study to do can focus on our exams.
What’s the industry like?
The actuarial world is very small.
Before long you’ll be meeting the same people at social events, corporate entertainments and exams, and building relationships. Because there are so few actuaries in the UK it won’t be long before you interact with these people – or others who know them – in a professional context, and it’s useful to have already broken the ice.
Because many defined benefit pension schemes are closing, there is a lot of competition for those that remain. Similarly, there is a lot of competition for good quality staff. Even student actuaries will frequently receive calls from recruitment agencies trying to entice them elsewhere.
How do you stay motivated at work?
Trustee consultants often advise the pension schemes of large companies, and by coming up with innovative solutions and looking beyond the obvious we can save the scheme money and have a real impact on the company’s profit margins. The fact that what I do is important is enough motivation for me.
How do you get the elusive ‘work life balance’?
By getting in early I ensure I’m always free to leave on time. I get exercise at lunch times and spend my evenings switched off from work. But then when exams are on there is no way to balance it, you just have to sacrifice the life part for that final month. It’s worth it for the pay rises and the excellent social events that follow (just in the two weeks following this exam sitting I’m attending a cocktail making session, hosting a barbeque for colleagues, playing in a roller hockey tournament and finishing off with a wine tasting evening).
If I wanted to be an actuary, what advice would you give me?
It’s hard work. Just because you’re an excellent mathematician doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at it, so don’t expect to be. The exams are tough.
Professionalism also takes time, and it’s guaranteed that the first phone call will instil a 'rabbit-in-headlights' effect that leaves you unable to answer the most basic questions. Some people are afraid to make phone calls because of it, preferring to email their contacts, but for urgent work this is never as good so keep trying to talk to people until the nervousness goes away. It’s much better to have made practice calls to administrators and investment managers before you need to talk to a client.
Anything you’d change?
It would be nice if, when you tell people you’re an actuary, they didn’t respond with a blank stare.