Careers insight: Meet IFoA Fellow Matt Saker

Discussion with laptops

In any profession, learning from those who have gone before you can help you find out what you enjoy, understand what you’re good at and decide where you want to take your career. 

We spoke to Matt Saker, Fellow at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries about his career and what advice he would give to actuaries entering the profession now.

Matt Saker is Group Chief Actuary at Aviva where he has responsibility for all aspects of the Group’s actuarial methodology in respect of both Life and General Insurance, and is currently leading the development of data science and the embedding of climate risk within Aviva’s Risk management Framework. Matt plays an active role in the UK actuarial profession and was elected onto the Council of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries in 2016, before joining the Regulation Board in 2018. More recently Matt has been closely involved in the profession’s response to climate change.

How do you feel your career in actuary has been advanced – e.g., through ambition, opportunity, good fortune? Combination of factors

MATT SAKER: I have been an actuary for 30 years now, and I’d say that my career development has been driven by several factors in different measures. It started at a consultancy, and one of the first things I had to do was chose a practice area to work in – investment, insurance, or pensions work. At the time I had very little idea of the difference between them, but I plumped for insurance – it was a random decision, a Sliding Doors moment, you might say, and I think that if I had made a different decision in 1990 my actuarial career – indeed, my life – would have been markedly different. That said, I like to think that my subsequent career has been largely driven by ambition and a compelling desire to push myself beyond my comfort zone.  I strongly believe that, given the skillset we have, if actuaries are open to embracing new areas of work, then it will stand them in good stead in terms of career development.

Looking back to when your career started, compared to an actuary who’s joining the profession today, what contrasts do you find most evident?

MATT SAKER: Well, if you take the actuarial profession itself, there are some huge contrasts. For instance, when I joined the profession I was fairly confident that I was looking at a career span of maybe three decades. I understood that I’d have to make sacrifices and commit at least five years to begin with to get through the exams, but I was prepared to do that, as were my colleagues. These days, looking at the pace of workplace change generally, it’s hard to say if the same professions will even exist in 30 years’ time. If they do exist, they will likely not possess the same structure as they have now. When I talk to young actuaries entering the profession, their timeframes are a lot shorter than mine were 30 years ago.  For example, many expect to have multiple careers throughout their working lifetimes, which changes things in a material way. If you think that you’re only going to be in this profession for perhaps 15 years – or even 10 – then are you going to be willing to spend five of those years taking exams to get to where you need to be?  That is a big change, and I’d say that the ‘barrier to entry’ to the actuarial profession needs to be reviewed to reflect that mindset. If it doesn’t, then the risk is that the actuarial profession won’t attract the talent it needs.

What else has changed, say in a more work-a-day context?

MATT SAKER: Many things. For example, when I started out, spreadsheets didn’t really exist and we used to do our actuarial calculations on huge squared paper sheets, and you had to dot and check everything as you went.  All that is no more. Indeed, the time of spreadsheets has almost come and gone, as we now move to new tools such as Python. However, I’d argue that the latest technology enhances the work that actuaries do, with less time being spent doing the dull and mundane aspects of the job, with more time being spent on the value adding aspects.

Are starter actuaries expected to get hands-on sooner than was the case 30 years ago? Are they on a shorter learning curve before they’re assigned to a project?

MATT SAKER: When I entered the profession, big employers like insurance firms and consultancies generally recruited large cohorts of actuaries – there were 21 other actuaries taken on by my first employer the year I started. The organisation viewed that as a long-term investment. Nowadays, employer organisations expect to get value out of their graduate hires a lot sooner. What that means is that actuaries do tend to be thrown into the thick of it a bit more quickly and are probably pushed harder than they were back in my day.  That is a big change. 

What are there ramifications of that?

MATT SAKER: On one hand there’s more individual opportunity. I see more evidence of people entering the profession now being what you might call ‘moderately pushy’ about their careers and demanding more of their managers.  There has been a change in emphasise from the employer to the employee asking “what can you do for me?”.   On the other hand there is the stress factor. I do generally think that expectations are higher and actuaries entering the profession in 2020 are under greater pressure than previous generations of actuaries.

What other pressures will a rookie actuary encounter if they aim to progress higher in terms of professional status and worth? 

MATT SAKER: One thing is that they must be prepared to have their analyses subjected to more scrutiny than in the past. When I entered the profession, senior actuaries were rarely challenged. Back then, what they said went. And that’s quite different these days. An actuary’s role now is chiefly to provide advice to trustees, senior management or boards. In that capacity, they are often challenged and asked to justify their conclusions by these stakeholders. Responding to these challenges requires a somewhat different skill.   In particular, while strong technical skills were probably sufficient in the past, they are no longer sufficient.   Actuaries must now have a balance of skills if they want to progress to senior management level.  As well as being technically strong they also need good soft skills e.g. good communications skills to tell the story in a coherent way that their stakeholders will buy into.

Can you enlarge on what ‘soft skills’ means in the actuarial context?

MATT SAKER: It relates to what I said about actuaries being challenged. At the start of my career, the actuary would do all the technical work and it would generally be accepted without challenge. That is not the way it works these days. There is a lot of technical analysis that underpins work that ultimately gets presented to a board, audit committee or senior management team.  In some sense the people you are communicating that to – the ultimate decision makers – don’t really care about the 95% of the brilliant technical work that goes into it, which they typically take for granted.  What they care about is the 5% of analysis that gets presented to them in the board or committee meeting.  In my view actuaries can come unstuck on that. In particular, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the 95% is, if you get that final 5% wrong then you are lost.  For that reason you need to be absolutely spot-on in getting that 5% communicated right and getting your message across in a clear, coherent way that non-actuaries can understand. Stakeholder management really helps here, where we need to learn how to build strong relationships with our key stakeholders, so that when we get in front of them in a pressured situation, they are not strangers.  Soft skills are absolutely key to that.

We see emergent tech like data science and Artificial Intelligence starting to be described as potential adjuncts to actuarial science. How should starter actuaries best respond to this?

MATT SAKER: DS and AI shouldn’t fundamentally change the work we do, but new tech will change the way we do it. It will enable us to do more with less and to gain new insights. While we need to be mindful of the ethical dimension these new technologies introduce, they offer huge opportunities to develop our skills and open up new areas of insight that we can share with our stakeholders. So, my advice to young actuaries is simple: just embrace it.  

The IFoA wants to support our Members’ careers. This series was created to help Members gain valuable insights from senior actuaries in order to develop their own careers.