Startership enterprise

An innovative virtual work-experience programme helps new actuaries avoid feeling like aliens dropped onto a foreign planet when they start their first jobs.

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An innovative virtual work-experience programme helps new actuaries avoid feeling like aliens dropped onto a foreign planet when they start their first jobs. Its founders, Pamela Hellig, Previn Pillay and Soshan Soobramoney, explain how ‘AIM’ works.

Imagine that Earth is visited by aliens and you are a facilitator of the IFOA: the Institute For the Orientation of Aliens. As a facilitator for aliens, or FFA, your job is to help them adapt to life on Earth by teaching them key skills before they are let loose on society. These aliens will take human forms, so one of the skills they need to learn is how to tie their shoes. How would you impart this knowledge to a classroom of students who have never seen shoes – never mind shoelaces – before; who probably do not even know what a knot is?

Perhaps you start with a lecture on the background of shoes and the need for shoelaces. You project a step-by-step diagram and explain the overs, unders and bunny ears. You look up at your alien audience and take in their bemused expressions. “Of course,” you say to yourself. “I should demonstrate this with an actual shoe.” So you hoist your foot up onto a stool, gather your students around and tie your shoelace while they watch, explaining each step. You have time to do this once or twice more before the bell rings.

What will happen when the training session is over? Your aliens will probably not even make it out of the lecture venue because they will have tripped over their own shoelaces. Because you can’t learn how to tie a shoe from watching someone demonstrate it in a classroom. You need to practise those fine motor skills and do it yourself – probably several times before you get the hang of it.

We can agree that the most efficient, effective way to learn something as straightforward and universal as tying a shoe is by doing it yourself in a supportive, low-stakes environment; by trying and failing multiple times before eventually getting it right. So how can we expect students of actuarial science – one of the most difficult and abstract qualifications on Earth (and probably other planets, too) – to assimilate their actuarial learning without ever applying it practically before their first jobs?

There is a famous quote, usually attributed to Confucius or one of his followers: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” We – three South African actuaries who remember the perilous jump between university and the alien landscape that was the working world – believe these words are as true today as they were thousands of years ago. We devised the shoelace experiment to demonstrate the universal value of experiential learning, or learning by doing. And we, along with an army of researchers and educators (see our paper The actuarial vacation work student – boon or burden? ) believe augmenting university education with experiential learning opportunities creates graduates who are better equipped to effectively apply their skills in the workplace, and hence enjoy more immediate job satisfaction and add more value to their employers.

“There are simply not enough employers offering holiday work opportunities to interested students”

Driven by this insight, we launched the Actuaries In the Making (AIM) virtual holiday work programme, which aims to give every student who plans to enter the actuarial profession, anywhere in the world, access to an experiential learning opportunity during their university years.

The need for AIM

At present, experiential learning at university level in South Africa largely consists of holiday work programmes. These generally entail actuarial employers – those willing and able to run such programmes – hosting a handful of actuarial students at their offices for a few weeks during the university holidays. The idea is to give students a taste of what it’s actually like to work as an actuary, while also serving as a marketing and recruitment tool for the employers.

Surveys we conducted with South African actuarial employers, students, their lecturers and other stakeholders indicate that holiday work has great potential to add value – 99% of students and 82% of actuaries believe it adds value to students. The current landscape, however, falls short. It is not accessible to all students, lacks consistent structure and purpose, and often fails to provide adequate professional supervision. Most glaringly, there are simply not enough employers offering holiday work opportunities to interested students – only 16% of students surveyed had participated in a holiday work programme. This suggests that demand far outweighs supply.

On investigation, we found that there were shortcomings associated with traditional holiday work programmes, which have led to employers being unwilling or unable to offer these opportunities. These shortcomings seem to fall into four categories:

First, employers may feel there is not enough value in offering holiday work. Their resources are already stretched, it’s onerous to organise and supervise, and there’s no tangible positive outcome. In short, the perception is that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Second, a lack of flexibility may deter employers. Constraints such as set office hours, the presence of students on site, and fixed or demanding employer-student interaction may prevent some actuaries from participating, even if they wanted to.

Third, the current landscape doesn’t promote inclusivity. Not all students can spend their holidays in major cities where employers are based. They may have other obligations or be subject to financial constraints. Smaller or non-traditional actuarial employers may not have the contacts, budget or capacity to run holiday work programmes. These factors can exclude students who come from less privileged families, as well as some employers.

Finally, traditional holiday work programmes tend to be limited in scalability. Employers may only have capacity to take on a small number of students and lack the ability to grow their programmes.

AIM was designed to address some of these constraints, with the ideas of value, flexibility, inclusivity and scalability becoming our programme’s basic tenets.

How AIM works

AIM runs for two weeks twice a year (in the summer and winter holidays) and is fully virtual, so employers and students anywhere in the world can participate. Students spend about four hours a day working on their assignments, giving them time to enjoy their holiday, too.

Partly and fully qualified practising actuaries from all walks of life participate as ‘business owners’, with each supervising a group of three to four students. They set a real-world assignment and check in with their students for 30 minutes a day. These are the only expectations – how business owners run assignments is completely up to them.

Students are also introduced to the business owners of other groups throughout the programme, so that by the end of the two weeks, they have increased their network of practising actuaries by several contacts. This is significant for students who have never had the opportunity to interact with real-life actuaries before. At the end of the two weeks, all students and business owners get together and the students present their assignments.

The virtual and part-time nature of the programme, its focus on efficiency, and the low time and money investment required offer value to both students and actuaries, and make the programme scalable, flexible and inclusive.

The journey so far

The programme was launched in January 2022, and at the time of writing, more than 130 students, supervised by around 40 actuaries, had completed it.

Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive: 100% of participating students and actuaries said they would do it again and recommend it to peers. Students who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in holiday work were able to meet and learn from passionate and inspiring actuaries.

Students have learned about traditional and non-traditional practice areas that they would never have considered before, relationships have been formed, knowledge has been cemented via practical experience, and mistakes have been encouraged and embraced in a safe, low-stakes environment.

And real value has been added for the actuaries. The experience is not just a way to give back to the profession and invest in tomorrow’s actuaries – worthwhile in itself – but also exposes real-world actuarial problems to fresh thinking and unique ideas from eager young minds. All the actuaries said that they met at least one student they would like to have in their team one day and, given that the programme may be seen as an extended and in-depth job interview, this has manifested in job offers being made. For some employers, having junior actuaries act as business owners has created first-time managerial roles, accelerating careers.

The founders on the future aims of AIM

The South African actuarial community has embraced the AIM programme to the extent that it has been officially endorsed by the Actuarial Society of South Africa, and we believe it can offer similar benefits around the world. We hope our programme and research will instil optimism in the future of the profession – a sense that, with relatively little effort, everyone in our community can play a positive role in developing future actuaries.

We also encourage members of the profession to explore their own ideas about what successful experiential learning could look like – ideas that we hope will be shared with us and contribute to future research in this field. We invite any actuary or actuarial student who is interested in the AIM programme or in experiential learning in general to email us at aim@actuarialsociety.org.za to continue the conversation and build a global community of like-minded actuaries.

Authors:

Soshan Soobramoney is an accreditation actuary and a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg
Previn Pillay is a finance actuary at Old Mutual
Pamela Hellig is an actuarial manager at Insight Life Solutions

This piece originally appeared in the June 2023 edition of The Actuary magazine.

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