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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

A tale of two actuaries

Working abroad definitely has its rewards the chance to learn new things, meet new people, and experience a new culture. But actuaries Ian Edelist and Kulin Patel found there are also some adjustments to be made. Everything from pension legislation to tea rounds, crazy drivers to cloud cover.
Ian travelled from Toronto to London for a one-year stint with Hymans Robertson. Kulin left London to work in Toronto. Here is their take on life on the other side of the pond.

On work environment

Ian on the UK
Actuarial students in the UK get great support from the employer. With weekly tutorials for exams, mock exams, and generous study leave programmes, students have a good chance of passing so long as they stay away from clubbing.
Compared with their Canadian counterparts, UK actuarial students also do well in terms of vacation. Many Canadian actuaries let alone actuarial students would envy 20 days of vacation!
Casual Fridays are also a bit different. It’s not uncommon to have casual Fridays in Canada, but they tend not to be as casual. As a general rule, we save the faded jeans and exposed fleshy bits for the weekends.

Kulin on Canada
Exam results time in Canada is a different experience. There is less fanfare about the whole thing. In fact, it tends to be quite a private affair. The results published by the Society of Actuaries are listed by candidate number, not by name. Students keep their candidate numbers (and their results) close to their chest although everyone tends to find out in the end.
So far, I have found that the pace of office life generally runs in about third gear here in Canada. Back home, I can’t remember a time we weren’t redlining it in fifth gear. It’s a nice change.
My memory cells are also less strained in Canada. I don’t have to remember everyone’s order for tea rounds everyone gets their own. Another fine example of Canadian individuality.

On technical issues

Ian on the UK
I thought Canada had a lot of pensions regulations. And it does. But you can generally go to one source to find the regulations you need. In the UK, there’s a vast and growing list of regulations and it’s not always easy to track down the regulations you need.
I also found pension-plan designs to be a bit more complex in the UK. This is largely because of the way pension schemes are integrated with the state pension.
Unlike Canada, the UK government provides the majority of risk benefits. That’s good for employees, but it generally means fewer opportunities for risk benefits consulting. The few plans that are insured are usually brokered based on cost. There is less concern about whether the insurer has followed the terms, or whether the sponsor should self-fund, adjust coverage, or switch to a flexible arrangement.
One big plus the UK has over Canada is the fact that trusteed pension schemes are the standard. Trustees look out for the best interests of scheme participants. And the risk of a conflict of interest is lower than in Canada where, more often than not, the actuary is retained by the employer.
I did, however, find the power that UK trustees have to award discretionary benefits a little unusual. That’s quite different from Canada, where benefits can be enhanced only for a class of members and the plan text usually has to be amended to reflect any change.
Getting a feel for the numbers also took a little getting used to at first, simply because UK pension schemes provide for many rich ancillary benefits. This makes it difficult to determine if results are reasonable.
Kulin on Canada
Pensions legislation is daunting enough in England, but try becoming familiar with a number of different pension standards. That’s what it’s like in Canada where each province has its own pensions legislation.
The question often becomes, which legislation do you use? Some aspects of the legislation, which govern minimum standards, depend on where employees live and work. Other aspects depend on in which province the pension plan (or scheme) is registered. It can all get pretty complicated when a company has employees scattered across the country.
On the positive side, Canada offers greater exposure to a variety of defined benefit plan designs, as well as non-pension benefits (such as medical plans and post-employment plans). Because the country’s state health system isn’t as comprehensive as the NHS, some employers even sponsor health, dental, and life insurance plans for their retired employees.
All this leads to some interesting accounting valuations in Canada. An example was a lump sum paid for vested accumulated sick days upon retirement. Once, I even had to value post-retirement telephone discounts.
Overall, I have found the Canadian consulting environment to be much more focused on the employer. Actuaries aren’t required to show the same consideration for members as are scheme actuaries in England.
However, unions seem to have more influence on pensions and benefits in Canada. Separate plans often exist for union employees and the benefit terms are renegotiated periodically. This can often result in a flurry of costings at contract bargaining time.

On life outside of work

Ian on the UK
As a Canadian, I’d gotten used to having four very distinct seasons. I found I missed that in England. And, to be honest, I prefer less rain rather than more.
On the plus side, it doesn’t take long to get from point A to B in the UK. Cities and towns are neatly nestled together there’s not much in the way of wasted spaces. Every plot of land is used for something. And the whole country is beautifully manicured.
But while getting from A to B is quick and picturesque, it’s also a bit dangerous in London. There are no stop signs just roundabouts and yields. And if you’re a pedestrian watch out. You never have the right of way. Every time you cross the street, you take your life in your hands.
When all is said and done, though, you’ve got to love a country that has a pub on every corner. Canada just can’t match England’s active pub life.
Kulin on Canada
It’s nice to know that others in the world talk about the weather as much as we do in England. There is certainly a lot less rain in Canada and that brightens the spirit. But the range of temperatures is extreme. I’ve experienced everything from 40?C in summer to 30?C in winter.
In terms of geography, I now know what vast means. Canada is huge! Vancouver seems further away than England. And there is such a variety of scenery. Within a two-hour drive of Toronto you can find ski hills, campgrounds, lovely lakeside cottages, and, of course, Niagara Falls.
But be careful when you’re driving. Running yellow lights seems to be a thrill sport in Toronto. I guess in a city where the professional hockey, basketball, and baseball teams tend to be ‘also-rans’, these otherwise very warm and friendly people need some kind of sport at which they can excel.