What Technical Skills Should I Learn As an Actuarial Student?

Mike Jennings Actuary HeadshotGuest Blog from Mike Jennings, FSA, CERA

As a student, I often asked this question during career fairs. Now, I still receive this question when talking to current students. Technical skills are a critical part of an actuarial job, so the topic deserves a lot of attention.

My short answer to the question: learn Excel and Access as a foundation, and if possible learn a programming language such as VBA, SQL, SAS, or R. However, that answer is not interesting, and it is not useful.

The real question is not what programming languages do I need, but what are employers really looking for when they see technical skills on your resume? What do you need to demonstrate to show you are ready for an actuarial job? There are three main components:

  • Technical competence – this is the obvious component. You need to show that you are comfortable learning and applying technical skills such as Excel or VBA
  • Communication – you need to explain the work in non-technical terms
  • Initiative – you can learn these technical skills on your own or can apply them to a project with little supervision

Many students focus solely on the first item: technical competence. They take courses to collect a list of programming skills to pad their resume. However, you want to take a quality over quantity approach to learning a programming language.

Which is more impressive?

Student A: Took university courses for VBA, SAS, and R, listing 3 programming languages on his resume. He did class projects each semester to demonstrate knowledge of the programming languages.

Student B: Bought a book to independently learn VBA. After practicing examples from the book, she wrote a program to automate a spreadsheet for her actuarial club, cutting down on 2 hours per month of manual work.

Think back to our three main criteria (technical competence, communication, and initiative). Student A demonstrated solid technical competence and maybe even communication skills with a class presentation. However, there is little initiative. The assignments were well-defined and given to him with deadlines, as opposed to Student B who showed she could work unsupervised and with little direction. She found a way to add value to the actuarial club, and demonstrates communication skills when explaining the project during the interview.

Clearly, Student B has the more relevant experience. Employers don’t care about how many programming classes you took – they care if you can apply those skills to solve business problems.

I am not saying that university courses are worse than self-teaching. Just remember: learning and problem solving in the workplace is often less structured than in the classroom, and you need to demonstrate the ability to thrive under those circumstances.

There are many ways you can supplement your university courses with projects that show initiative and the ability to solve “real-world” problems. For example:

  • After taking a course on R, create an account on Kaggle and participate in data science competitions, where you are thrown a real business problem with little direction. (The SOA even offers prize money for these competitions)
  • Similar to the example above, take what you learned in your VBA class and try to automate a spreadsheet for one of your student organizations, or for a personal project. If you’re interested in nutrition, you can automate a spreadsheet to generate a meal plan.
  • Practice understanding and comprehending code that someone else wrote, and then improve upon it. Not only can you learn new tricks from seeing how other people solve a given problem, but you will also need this skill in the workplace.
  • Simply go above and beyond with a class project or assignment, showing that you can add value beyond what is required.

Again, the main point here is quality over quantity. Instead of trying to learn a little bit about VBA, SAS, R and SQL to build your resume, you are better off focusing on one skill until you can demonstrate the following: technical competence, communication, and initiative. Anyone can say they took a class, but how many can use those coding skills to solve business problems? That should be your focus when developing your technical skills.  

Mike Jennings, FSA, CERA, is an actuary and the co-author of Actuarial Exam Tactics: Learn More, Study Less

Check out ACTEX Learning's series of technical skill webinars on Excel and VBA.