24Oct2011
Author
gmaki
Category
General

Profile of a retirement actuary: Ellen Kleinstuber

The Profile of an Actuary Series details the background, careers and inspirations of participants of the 2011 Society of Actuaries Annual Meeting, which was held October 16-19 in Chicago. If you would like to pose any questions for the participants after the meeting, leave a comment below.

What originally inspired you to study to become an actuary?

In high school, I thought I wanted to study math, but didn’t know quite what to do with it other than teach (which at the time held absolutely no appeal to me). I attended a math and science career day at a local college and learned from one of the math department presentations about being an actuary. Actuarial science’s combination of applied math, economics, finance, accounting and computer science sounded like it would be interesting, challenging and pretty much right up my alley. And I was right!

How would you describe the general skill set of an actuary?

In a word – broad.  We need to be able to understand complex mathematical and financial concepts and know how to communicate them simply, without losing the meaning.  Not easy, but critically important to being successful at whatever your specific area of actuarial practice.

What industry do you call home and what is the role actuaries play in that industry?

Employee benefits, specifically retirement benefits. We help defined benefit plan sponsors quantify the financial promise made to their employees, determine how to fund, administer and communicate them.  Actuaries also serve as a bridge between the human resources and finance staff within the sponsoring organizations, two groups that often have very different priorities. Pension actuaries are also working to educate people about the need for adequate lifetime income to support them through their retirement years, and the risks associated with failing to prepare adequately for one’s retirement income needs.

Could you describe a moment, after a project or deliverable, where you thought “this profession can do pretty amazing things?”

A participant in one of my clients’ pension plans was terminally ill and considering whether her spouse would be better off financially if he died as an active employee on disability, or as a retiree.  We had prepared retirement election forms for him, as well as estimates of his wife’s benefits if he died before electing to retire. The HR director at this company asked if I would participate in a call with this gentleman and his wife to help them understand how each of his options affected his wife’s survivor benefits, which I gladly did. That was the last I heard about the situation, until the following year when we were updating the plan’s census data. I paused for a moment when I saw that he had passed away only a few days after our conversation. But that’s not the end of the story.

A couple years later, I was out conducting employee meetings to help this company explain some significant changes to their retirement program that were being adopted.  At the end of one of the small group meetings, a gentleman came up to me and introduced himself.  I knew his name immediately – he was the older brother of the participant with whom I had spoken before his death.  He asked if I was the young woman who spoke to his brother about his pension.  When I confirmed that I was, he hugged me and thanked me for what I had done for his brother and their family. He spoke of his brother’s worries that his family would struggle without him there to provide financial support, and how the time his company’s HR staff and I took to explain the options available and their implications helped provide him with peace of mind in his final days.

Until that moment, my job had been about updating census data, checking liabilities and preparing reports.  For the first time, I saw the humanity in what we do as actuaries, and how our work touches people’s lives.  I was so very proud to have selected a profession that serves a social purpose and can make a direct and immediate impact on the constituents we serve.

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Discussion

2 responses to "Profile of a retirement actuary: Ellen Kleinstuber"

  • “For the first time, I saw the humanity in what we do as actuaries, and how our work touches people’s lives.”

    It makes a nice change to hear something positive about the actuary profession instead of the stereotypical comments on how unexciting they are as individuals and how they are mere tools in the finance and insurance industry.

  • Sean says:

    How would you describe the general skill set of an actuary?
    In a word – broad. We need to be able to understand complex mathematical and financial concepts and know how to communicate them simply, without losing the meaning. Not easy, but critically important to being successful at whatever your specific area of actuarial practice.
    I think broad is a good explenation, and the rest really drills it down to what it really is, it is a highly complex job that only a very few people can do.
    There is a high demand though for skilled people like this and the pay is very good for those up to the challenge.

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