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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Have you got what it takes?

For many people, the prospect of working abroad triggers a flush of adrenaline and the keen anticipation of change. For others, the same thought raises little more than the expectation of stomach cramps, as digestive systems get to grips with foreign cuisine.
On the whole, actuaries appear to live by the ‘have bag, will travel’ philosophy. Perhaps this is a natural antidote to years of dedicated study, or perhaps actuarial skills simply travel well. Either way, there seems to be large numbers of actuaries, or actuaries in the making, looking to further their careers on foreign soil.
Unfortunately the doors of welcome are not thrown quite as wide today as was customary a year or two ago. According to Susan Robertson, director at Quantum Selection: ‘The job market is currently very tight in many countries around the world. Unless you have something special to offer an employer, the first choice is going to be for a local candidate, one who has experience of the local market and is perceived to be more likely to stick around.’

Actuarial passports
With job markets clamping down, it is no longer wise to walk in unprepared. The three main factors influencing your marketability are:
– area of work experience;
– level of qualification;
– skill set.
It is vital you take a good, hard look at your profile to determine where you fit, and what you need to do to maximise the prospect of securing work in your chosen destination. Pockets of opportunity do exist, and, in order to succeed, you need to identify these and position yourself accordingly. This smacks of foresight and planning, but then, you’re an actuary, right?
Says Susan: ‘Employers are looking for actuaries who can be far more than just an actuary. Dynamic, commercially orientated business actuaries with consulting experience or ability are sought time and again in every location around the world. To find these actuaries, employers will look overseas.’
Shortages occur predominantly in the newly qualified to ten years, post-qualification range, so it is at this point in your career that you are most likely to find overseas opportunities. Prospects do exist for senior students, but relevant work experience is a vital factor in securing these positions.
As a rule, the chances of securing work abroad at a junior level are relatively slim, since local skills are usually in plentiful supply. Rules were made to be broken, however, and the innovation and determination of many junior-level actuarial students deserves to be recognised. Many of these young go-getters are prepared to move abroad with less security than that backing a personal loan. Where visas permit, they work in restaurants, work on construction sites, or find other casual labour while waiting patiently for actuarial opportunity to knock. ‘And’, says Debbie Burbridge, who provides support and advice to junior students, ‘sooner or later it probably will, but be prepared for a lengthy wait’.
For those who prefer not to live by the seat of their pants, the advice given by the team at Quantum Selection would be to establish your career at home before contemplating a move abroad. This way you will have more to offer a potential employer and are more likely to raise some interest. Exam success goes hand in hand with work experience and it is vital to keep a healthy balance between the two.

Where to fly to
Different skills and experience will be marketable in different regions, and it is important to know who wants what before you book your plane ticket. John Bateup, an experienced actuary and senior recruitment consultant, works extensively with companies in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘The Australian market is very quiet’, he advises, ‘and there seems little activity among the companies. The consultancies are always on the lookout for strong candidates with consulting backgrounds, although just recently the focus has tightened to those candidates with some local experience. Discussions with both companies and consultancies, though, have indicated that they are unable to fill property/casualty posts locally due to insufficient expertise and there is clear demand for overseas candidates with experience in the general insurance market’.
Much of south-east Asia is currently struggling with the effects of the SARS virus. While this has put recruitment on hold in some areas, John shares his broader view of recruitment in this region over recent months: ‘In the more established markets of Hong Kong and Singapore, activity has been very slow. Any requirements have been centred on the life side, with particular emphasis on local experience and local language skills embracing Cantonese or Mandarin. There has been some interest from Japan but only for those with Japanese language skills and local experience.
‘In the less established markets, the situation is slightly different. Overseas candidates are welcome in places like Indonesia and Korea, although local language skills seem to be prerequisite. However, in mainland China and India there is a tendency to train up local actuaries. Appointments from overseas tend to be at senior levels to bring in expertise and experience for shorter periods of time.’

Planning for a successful trip
So what pearls of wisdom can be offered to those aspiring to broaden their horizons? Susan feels it is imperative you do your research carefully before selecting the recruitment agency that will represent you. ‘They should have good access to the market in which you are interested, and must agree a marketing strategy with you before sending your CV anywhere. Select an agency that will provide you with honest advice, even if it is not what you want to hear. You may want to use more than one agency, and indeed, beware the agency that insists you only use them! If you do feel that you need to use more than one agency, select another agency that can provide a different angle or area of opportunity from your first choice. If using more than one agency, it is important to be above board with both, otherwise you could end up with multiple applications to potential employers, which does not reflect well on all parties involved, yourself included.’
Well, that’s a start. You must also be committed to the concept of working abroad and all that this brings. This ranges from very practical aspects, such as ensuring that you can finance the costs of attending interviews overseas, to the less definable such as adapting to a new culture and way of life.
For most people contemplating a move overseas, salary is not a driving factor, ‘but’, cautions Caroline Hong, who has herself experienced an international actuarial career move, ‘overseas salaries are usually lower than UK salaries’. In spite of this, lower living costs and different taxation regimes may still leave you better off at the end of the day. Also, once you have gained region-specific experience and possibly local language skills, you may well command a higher salary.
In most countries, work permits are usually fairly easy to arrange. However in some countries, like South Africa, it is relatively difficult for employers to secure work permits for international recruits, and candidates from other countries will usually only be considered at the qualified level.
‘Prepare for a time commitment’, says John. ‘In a tight market, employers aren’t interested in candidates seeking a “short-term” overseas experience. They invest heavily in relocation and work permits and expect a medium to long-term commitment. I do not feel a period of less than three years should be considered and most relocation packages confirm this in their structure. Shorter-term contract roles do arise occasionally but tend to be more common in a buoyant market.’

The return journey
Assuming that your foray into foreign territories is successful and your time abroad filled with new and exciting experiences, how do you find yourself positioned when the familiarity of home beckons again? ‘The US and UK markets are the most sophisticated of all’, says John, ‘and there is nothing to beat experience in these markets. Do not expect working overseas to be a passport to success upon returning to the UK. I feel candidates should seek overseas posts that will provide natural progression to their chosen actuarial career path, both in terms of expertise within their chosen discipline or even gaining management or strategic development skills in that chosen discipline’.
Caroline feels that there will be benefits on returning to the UK. ‘Exposure to other cultures, improved communication skills, and greater self-confidence will always stand you in good stead’, she encourages. ‘Your knowledge of international products and markets will result in a broader outlook, and the international business contacts developed might prove to be useful at some future stage.’
Whether or not the international exposure boosts your career back home, it seems the personal benefits of such a venture may tip the scales in favour of change. My own experience is that becoming part of everyday life within a different culture provides an experiential peak that little can match. I suspect that most people who have adapted themselves to the norms of other cultures, even for a short period in their lives, find they have created a memory that can always draw a satisfied sigh. And isn’t that what life is about?