Riley Howsden has one of those hip jobs everyone loves to hate. He works at L.A.-based video game producer Riot Games, where business attire includes hoodies, the food comes free and his job entails deducing what kinds of products gamers might buy. Aggressive players, for instance, might splurge on samurai-assassin gear for their characters.
Howsden’s current data science gig couldn’t be further afield from his previous one as an insurance actuary — a job so stereotypically mundane the inside joke is “an extroverted actuary is someone who looks at other people’s shoes.”
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“If I was to write a cover letter for a job, it’s much easier for me to detail my passion for video games than it is to detail my passion for insurance,” said Howsden, 32, who spent weekends playing video games in his hometown of Oshkosh, Nebraska, population 884.
Howsden’s career pivot is at the root of some soul searching going on within actuarial communities. Seasoned actuaries often earn more than $200,000, and the field perennially ranks near the top of “best career” surveys. A Bankrate.com survey from this summer called actuarial science the most valuable bachelor’s degree based on pay and employment. However, industry conventions are rife with warnings that data scientists are encroaching on actuaries’ turf, and that their lack of speaking skills keeps them locked in bookish roles at insurers.
Mike Lombardi, a past president of the Society of Actuaries, called the industry’s challenge to stay relevant an “existential one” in a speech last year and warned that “complacency is not an option.”
Data science draws the same type of students and appears to be growing far faster, according to stats from the job board Indeed.com. Job postings per million for data science or scientists rose 23% in October 2017 and 33% last month when compared with a year earlier, according to stats from Indeed.com.
‘Shockingly Bad Comb-Over’
The situation is more muddled for actuaries. The profession’s two main credentialing bodies, the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society, each report that membership is growing by single digits. However, Indeed.com’s actuary job postings fell in 2016 and 2017 before rebounding this year; yet even with a bounce back, the number of 2018 postings are fewer than two years ago. The wave of mergers in the insurance industry could be one reason for this. But data science is increasingly performing similar functions.
“Although it’s important to society, the insurance industry doesn’t have the greatest image,” said Stephen Mildenhall, an actuary and risk management professor at St. John’s University in New York. “To the extent that there’s a sexy part of actuarial jobs, it’s the part that data science is doing.”
Actuaries have a time-honored stereotype as socially-awkward nerds. Some in the business revel in the exaggeration. When Hollywood in 2002 released “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson as an awkward actuary with a terrible comb-over, the SOA released a sublimely geeky retort: “Portrayal of actuaries as math-obsessed, socially disconnected individuals with shockingly bad comb-overs is 97.28892% incorrect.”