After graduating from the University of Warwick with a degree in Maths, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics (MORSE), Tom Williams joined Aon as a trainee actuarial consultant. We caught up with him to find out more about the professional life of an actuary…
What time do you start?
Most people tend to work from 9am to 6pm. I tend to work a bit longer; from around 8.30am to 7pm most days. If you’re a bit light on work, though, there isn’t a problem if you just work your standard working hours. It’s not like banking.
Do you have any ‘routine’ duties?
I never really do the same thing from day to day. Even though some of the actuarial work can be quite repetitive, tasks are often repeated once a quarter, once a year or once every three years; not on a daily basis.
How much ‘number crunching’ do you do on a daily basis?
You need to be pretty good at maths. I did MORSE (Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics) at the University of Warwick.
Around half of my time is spent working with numbers, but there’s a lot more consultancy work involved than people outside of the profession probably realise.
You’ve got to build the model; you’ve got to use Excel; and you’ve got to do plenty of analysis, but you can’t give a model to a client. You need to put everything into a report which is easy to read. That was the hardest bit when I first joined and that’s the bit that I want to improve on.
You can pick up the technical stuff quite quickly, but turning something technical into something that’s legible for a client is the real challenge.
Does your role involve any client-facing responsibilities?
Yes, as you get more senior. I only joined Aon in September 2010, so I’ve been here about a year and a half. I’ve been to a couple of meetings, but because our clients are so big and we’re talking about millions and billions of pounds, I can’t be put in front of them too early.
I’ve had some exposure at meetings, where I‘ve talked about some of the items that I’ve been working on. However, you tend to go to meetings with senior consultants more after your second year, when you’ve gained more experience.
How long does the graduate scheme actually last?
I was on the graduate scheme, but I finished last year. I started in September 2010 and it runs for a year. A new set of graduates have started now.
Do you have any engagement with the new graduates? Do you have a buddy system?
Yes, my buddy was brilliant; a really nice guy. You have to talk the new graduates through the standard technical things that they might not know, but the main thing you have to do is get them involved in the socials. You’re also the person that they can come and speak to about anything.
For most graduates, it’s their first job. You go straight from university into a company, you get given a piece of work, you have no clue what you’re doing and you just need someone to point you in the right direction and show you what to do.
Do you use any of the maths, research methods and statistical modelling techniques you learned at university?
I don’t really use the pure mathematics, but I certainly use the applied financial mathematics and economics from time-to-time, such as discounting and gilt curves. You need that knowledge to do calcs and build models.
It’s quite reassuring to know that you studied something at university and you actually use it in your job.
Maths degrees build up your skills and your mathematical knowledge, but they also train you to analyse a problem and break it down; somebody who did a non-mathematics degree might not approach things in the same way.
Do you feel challenged by the kind of maths you’re doing?
Yes. Some of the calcs at the start can be quite easy, but some of the work I do is quite company-based, where there isn’t a precedent that dictates how to do something. It’s up to you to think of a solution and that can be quite hard.
While the maths is difficult and takes time to understand, the main thing is trying to understand how you can use that maths to actually come up with a solution. Once you’ve done that, you have to put it into a report that someone can understand. That’s the hardest part.
If you go to university and get a good maths degree, you will be able to do the maths; I don’t think that’s ever going to be the problem. The thing that will differentiate you is your ability to speak to someone and explain what you’ve just done.
We’re often told: “Right, you’ve just done this sort of calc, but would you be able to explain that to your mum?” My mum’s not too clued-up on the pensions industry, but I will often ring her and try to explain something to see if she gets it.
You are currently studying for an actuarial qualification at Imperial College Business School. How does this fit in with your daily responsibilities?
When you do an actuarial job, you need to become qualified. It takes around seven years on average. At Aon, they aim for lower than that, but there are around 15 exams you need to pass. Some people are given exemptions from certain parts of the qualification based on their degree. I got three, but some people get more, and some start on none. You get one study day a week at Aon, so I’m only actually in the office for four days a week.
I go to Imperial College on my study day and attend lectures. We have three sets of exams a year, and I get more exemptions that way. I do that for two years, get a bunch of exemptions, and then I will only have a few more exams to do. It’s quite a quick way of going through it.
It’s intense because I have a lot of coursework and exams whilst I’m working. It takes up a lot of time and a lot of weekends, but I’d prefer to just get it done than drag it out over ten years.
There’s no particular pressure to pass them quickly, but there are also pay incentives once you become qualified. I started with three exemptions, I sat three exams in April last year, and then I started at Imperial in October. I’ve got two years at Imperial and I finish next July. After that I’ll have two more exams to do. If I pass everything, I should finish in 2014.
What additional in-house training do you receive?
The early actuarial exams are quite technical. They build up a lot of technical knowledge; some of which you need on the job, some of which you don’t. We also have lots of training about how to do presentations, how to speak to clients and how to check someone’s work.
A lot of our work is done on Excel, so a lot of our training focuses on how to use those formulae effectively; how to make a model so someone who doesn’t know about it can use it and understand it quickly.
In my first year on the graduate scheme the training sessions were a lot more set out. After the first year, though, they put together a calendar and you can choose which training sessions you want to go to, depending on what work you’re doing and how suitable it is.
What kind of projects are you working on at the moment?
One of the main things we focus on in the pensions industry is valuations. Once every three years, we have to analyse pension schemes; calculating how many members there are, what they’re earning and then projecting what their pensions are going to be.
These are big projects, which take about 15 months to complete. I’m working on a couple at the moment, which is great because you see the project all the way from the start to the end. You build the models, you give the presentations and it’s quite rewarding to see it all the way through.
The other big projects I’m working on are a bit more ad hoc. There have been a lot of problems with pension schemes since the onset of the recession, where assets fell. Consequently, a lot of pension schemes are closing. We’re working with different companies to see whether or not it’s a good idea to close their pension schemes; assessing the possible effects on the members and figuring out how they might go about doing it.
There’s a technical foundation to my work but it’s really consultancy-based. Stereotypically, actuaries can be seen as quite boring, but I honestly don’t see that at all here. We’ve got some top consultants and some really sociable guys.
What kind of clients do you work with?
Every big company that you know, such as Coca Cola and British Airways, will have a massive pension scheme, and they’re the kind of organisations that we advise. I don’t know the exact percentage of FTSE 100 companies that we work with, but it’s quite high.
I regularly see a company in the papers and think: “Oh yeah! We manage their pension scheme.” The work I do all seems very relevant and that’s why I like working for one of the big companies. You have all the best resources at your disposal; you work with massive companies that are in the press; and everything that’s happening in the market affects what you’re doing.
How much interaction do you have with the senior professionals in your team?
It’s a pretty fluid setup. There’s no problem with me going straight to the senior consultant and asking for a high-level opinion on something. The senior consultants are all really relaxed and will always help me if I ask them something. Obviously, I respect them and don’t want to waste their time by asking stupid questions, but they’re really good and they help you to develop.
What is the office atmosphere like?
It’s definitely quite relaxed; we have ‘casuals day’ every Friday, we go on ‘ice cream runs’, and we regularly go out for drinks after work
Everyone knows each other, and when you start going to the socials, you end up becoming just as good mates with your colleagues as you are with the people you met at university.
Would you say there is any truth in the stereotypical ‘work hard, play hard’ city boy culture?
I love working in the City because I’m not from London. I always thought: if I’m going to move, I’m going to move to London where it’s all happening. I absolutely love living and working here.
There will always be people who see someone in a suit and automatically think of them as some rich, young person who doesn’t care, but I wouldn’t say that’s the case at all. The people here are really nice, and I‘ve got really good friends here. I don’t see how it’s any different to any other job.
What is the best part of your job?
The responsibility I have is a lot higher than I thought it was going to be. I thrive on the responsibility of knowing that someone has trusted me to do a certain job.
The kind of work I enjoy the most is where we haven’t got something in the past that you can build on. I like some of the company work, where they’ll come to us with a new problem, and we’ll have to go away and think about it, build something to model it, put it into a report, and everything is based on my own input and interpretation.
What is the worst part of your job?
Admin stuff. I don’t think you can get away from it in any job.
What time do you finish? Do you ever have to work beyond your designated working hours?
I always work beyond my designated working hours, but, in most circumstances, our work can be planned over a month or so. It never gets to the point where we have to work until 4am.
There have been times when I’ve worked to around midnight, but that was just to clear a backlog of work. It’s a well-respected profession and we work hard, but you’re not expected to work really late. There are times when I’ve sent emails to senior consultants at 9pm, which I don’t think is that late, and they’ll just reply with “Go home!” They want people to have a good balance, which is great.