We have always been told as students that anyone good in maths should become an engineer. I would tell students to reconsider and become an actuary. That is, if you also love risks and uncertainty!

Sankesh Jain, our next pathbreaker, works on valuation of Pension and Retirement Benefit Plans for employees by estimating future payouts based on assessments of risk and uncertainty.

Sankesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about making up his mind to study statistics and equipping himself with the technical and soft skills needed to pursue a career as an Actuarial consultant.

For students choosing a niche career, be patient, learn the requisite transferrable skills and have an alternate fall back option. Read on to learn more …

Sankesh, what were your initial years like?

I am a Delhite and was born and brought up in Delhi. Ever since I was a child , I was studious and hardworking. I belong to a very simple nuclear family. My dad is into business and mother is a housewife . Both of them have been very supportive of the choices in life and have  contributed a lot to what I am today. I have a sister who is 3 years younger to me. I am a strong believer in merit and the power of education. Apart from that, my hobbies are singing, playing cricket , having some small comic sessions and chit chats with my close friends. During my early years of schooling I was a part of the National School Of Drama where I explored my theatrical skills. However I had to quit theatre due to my focus on studies in the later years. I am a dreamer and often associate myself with great personalities. This is where all my motivation in life comes from.

What did you study?

I completed my graduation in BSC(Hons) Statistics from P.G.D.A.V college , Delhi University in 2017 with 1st division and a decent score.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Being a science student , I initially started preparing for Engineering entrance exams. However I was not able to secure admission into a good engineering college and honestly, looking at the life of engineers in India in terms of work-life balance and compensation, I never had that zest to be an engineer. I always wanted to do something out of the league where growth was quick and certain and at the same time also wanted to use my technical skills. 

With  92 percent marks in my class 12 exams, I secured admission in Statistics hons at P.G.D.A.V college. I think choosing a technical major like statistics was the biggest turning point in my career. As usual, like every other college student , I enjoyed my 1st year in college with some excellent friends whom I cherish till date. Having a good percentage in first year of college, I was in a comfortable position but wanted to do something extraordinary to beat the competition. This is when I decided to pursue a professional course in leiu of an extension to my existing profile. Some of my batchmates were already enrolled with India and UK based actuarial societies and were giving exams from there. 

One fine day , I went  to an actuarial coaching centre in Satyaniketan which was popular among students at that time. I would call it the best decision of my life, since I was  guided by the best of faculties over there and would certainly call it a temple of learning. The atmosphere over there was motivating and my teachers were actuarial professionals who were well aware of the market needs. With my hardwork and their guidance I managed to clear 5 actuarial exams of the CT series which is the initial series of the actuarial curriculum.

Tell us about your career path

In the last year of my college I had sensed that finding a job in the actuarial domain would be difficult due to increased supply of actuarial students competing for less vacancies. I am a socially and mentally aware person when it comes to my career aspects and I like to keep myself updated in terms of my profession. This is when I felt that I should have a plan B in place as I could not afford to sit idle at home after graduation. I was fully confident of my technical skills and abilities in securing an actuarial job but felt that from a practical standpoint, I needed to have a second option. This is when I approached the placement cell of my college and got to know that Royal bank of Scotland (RBS ), a global MNC was coming to our college for placement. I sat in the placement session for RBS and got selected through merit. Having that offer letter in hand made me confident . 

10 days after my last day at college I joined RBS as a mortgage analyst. I did not get any time to rest after college (but trust me, I am happy that I took this decision and didn’t take rest after college). It was a non actuarial profile but I was happy that I was learning corporate culture at such a large MNC. As months passed by, I applied to various actuarial vacancies but couldn’t finalize any opportunity due to stiff competition. I started feeling demotivated and had self doubts for the first time in my life. This is when I decided that I could not let time just pass by and had to take some action. So i decided to apply for an MBA degree to expand my horizons and have a diversified profile. I joined an MBA coaching institute and started classes, but my mind was always on an actuarial career and I just couldn’t focus on the MBA classes . I was literally riding on two boats at the same time and was feeling really depressed that I was not giving my best in both the fields. The daily routine continued, and office work and study was a part of my life now. I also gave my actuarial exams during this tenure but was unable to clear it during the course of the year. A student who was clearing papers continuously in college was not able to clear any exam during the year, it was disheartening for me. This is when finally during March 2018 , 9 months after my tenure with RBS, I received a call from Mercer Consulting India Private Limited. I was delighted and wanted to grab this opportunity. I cleared all the rounds and became an eligible candidate for the position. This was an internship opportunity and the risk was high as I had to quit my permanent job to join Mercer, but I took the additional risk as it was a role in the actuarial domain. 

I joined Mercer as an intern in the summer of March 2018. I was not aware that this was the beginning of a completely rewarding life for me. During my internship I worked hard and to the fullest of my capabilities. After the internship the company hired me as a consultant and a permanent employee. I received a lot of wishes and blessings from my team members and closed ones . I was delighted but at the same time, was aware of the additional responsibilities I had to take with my extended role. Currently I am working with the same organization. I never had any specific approach or industry connections in the actuarial domain. It was my sheer hardwork and determination which landed me where I am today.

What do you do at Mercer?

Currently I am working at Mercer, fulfilling the role of an actuarial consultant to the best of my capacity. So my work includes dealing with various clients and catering to their actuarial valuation requirements. I am in the retirement benefits team of the wealth division at Mercer consulting where my daily responsibilities are preparing actuarial valuation reports of Gratuity , Leave , PF and other retirement benefits for the clients allocated to me based on indian and international accounting standards. We  also deal with the client’s auditors in case of any questions.

Actuaries analyze the financial costs of risk and uncertainty. They use mathematics, statistics, and financial theory to assess the risk that an event will occur and help businesses and clients develop policies that minimize the cost of that risk. Actuaries’ work is essential to the insurance industry.

I’ve been in the pension field for almost 2 years now working for my firm. Here’s a brief rundown on what to expect as a pension actuary in near future:

Pension actuaries are responsible for calculating the value today of retirement benefits for pension plan participants, based on various assumptions concerning future events (retirement, termination of employment, disability, and death) and future economic conditions (interest rates, salary increases, etc). Plan sponsors (our clients) utilize our calculations in order to adequately fund their pension plans (i.e., to ensure that sufficient funds have built up to provide benefits to participants).

Here’s what you’re likely to be doing as an entry-level pension actuary (some firms call them actuarial students or actuarial analysts):

1) Federal law requires an annual actuarial valuation of the pension plans, based on current participant information. You will be responsible for analyzing and checking the data the client provides until it is in a format suitable for the valuation system used by the firm you work for.

2) Benefit Calculations- While not strictly an actuarial function, most plan sponsors rely on their actuary to perform “difficult” or “complicated” benefit calculations. Every client has a different idea of which benefit calculations should be referred to the actuary. But the budding actuary is usually responsible for these calculations (in collaboration with a more experienced signing actuary, of course). This will involve reading the plan document (a legal document which sets out the terms of the plan) and a familiarity with the applicable laws and regulations (which will come over time).

3) Valuations- Within a couple of years, you will probably be responsible for performing the actuarial valuation. This will involve reading the plan document, familiarity with the applicable laws and regulations, and knowledge of the valuation system used by your firm.

4) Client Contact – During your first year or two, you will likely have limited client contact. Initially, your contact will probably be phone calls with the people at your client’s company who are responsible for providing participant data. Some firms allow actuarial students to sign the transmittal letters that accompany benefit calculations; other firms require that an actuary with credentials sign them. The extent of your contact with your clients varies greatly from one firm to another, and sometimes even from office to office within a firm.

From complete technical analysis of data to communication with clients and stakeholders for quotation of financials and deciding the deliverables, my role is very diverse and makes me a complete professional as required in a consulting environment. I am thankful that I got the opportunity to work in consulting at such an early age and it is also improving my management skills apart from technical skills.

I think my understanding of my core actuarial subjects and knowledge in pensions is what makes me eligible for this role. I learnt a lot from my manager and our signing actuary who are my mentors in this journey with the organization.

What are the benefits of your work to the society?

In particular with our efforts and the kind of work we do , we usually provide the client with the help in closing their year end financials and help them with the provisions for records in their books of accounts. In general , the reports we provide give a fair estimate of a company ‘s liability and compare it with their assets . This makes them aware if their plans are overfunded or underfunded . This indeed works for the welfare of the employees, because at the end the company is maintaining these provisions to cater to the benefits of these employees upon retirement. 

Any special moment in your work?

One of my memorable moments at work is something which is non technical and is simply based on my growth as an individual at the organization. Approaching a new client and getting them ready for the actuarial valuation process within our organization was a kind of different experience for me and made me very confident as a consultant.

Your advice to students?

Based on my experience , I would suggest that students should start preparing for the actuarial exams immediately after class 12th if they like mathematics and can think analytically based on situations. I would also recommend enrolling with both the Institute of actuaries of India and Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, UK as this hedges the risk in clearance of papers. This gives you two attempts for one single exam and you never know you might clear exams from both the societies and expand your knowledge in the subject. In the current actuarial market, job specific software skills are important, so I would suggest juniors to pick up some tools and software like Excel , VBA, Prophet, R language etc. This will not only make them more diverse as actuaries but help practically on theoretical concepts learnt in the coursework. My suggestion would be to focus on clearing as many papers as one can at an early age so that you are settled as an actuary sooner in your career. Of course , this requires sheer determination and hardwork. Interested students can connect with me via linkedin or email and I will be happy to guide them.

Future plans?

Currently I have cleared a decent number of actuarial exams and have 3 years of work experience. So iam in the midphase of my career as an actuary. Hence I would want to make my profile diverse by specializing in the subject domain that I am currently working on, which is pensions. That will ensure that i have a strong foundation in the later years of my career. Expanding my horizons and scope globally would be my goal in the next  5 years because actuary is a profession with opportunities worldwide.