Training our Junior Students
At APR, we pride ourselves on the quality of training we provide. It’s not just pure altruism; there’s significant evidence to suggest investment in training and development is one of the most important key factors for millennials in choosing an employer, it directly improves the value and quality of service our staff offer to our clients, and we believe ongoing development of skills has been a key element of our high staff retention rate.
In this article, we talk through our approach to training our bright young graduates (or apprentices in our CAA programme), and how through our training programme we look to accelerate development of the skills and qualities they need to excel.
Typical training for a new starter
On joining APR, new starters go through an intensive induction programme. Here’s a download of the types of technical skills in demand we regularly see in client role specifications:
- Run cashflow projections and check and analyse results.
- Excellent knowledge of Excel, with working knowledge of VBA and SQL desirable.
- Initially to support the production of calculation specifications, followed by the development of test tools and then testing the system calcs.
- Work will require familiarity of life and pensions products, markets and distribution channels.
- Pricing knowledge, including knowledge of exposure loss ratios.
- Experience of analysis and data manipulation, primarily in Excel but also in SQL and R.
- Interpreting high level project and technical requirements and determining how they relate to a specific project implementation.
- Test planning and implementation including drafting test plans, test scenarios / criteria and scripts.
- Understanding of best practice in modelling standards (controls / documentation etc).
- Running documented processes, querying results, asking sensible questions for senior managers.
- Checking illustration PDF and XMLs against a specification: pension products and non-pension.
- An understanding of financial statements and the key data included in P&L, Capital, Shareholder and Balance Sheet activities.
- Basic knowledge of financial services regulatory and legislative frameworks.
- Produce Solvency II results to meet quarterly and annual deadlines. Assist consolidation of Solvency II results, ensuring suitable control and review. Contribute to analysis of results.
All of the above feed into the skills and knowledge we arm our junior students with in order to excel in the start of their actuarial careers. Some of these core skills are clear: training in standard software used across the industry: Excel, Access, PowerPoint and proprietary modelling software. Furthermore, data manipulation skills in Access, SQL, and XML. We’ve always provided training in the most widely used coding languages in actuarial work such as VBA but as data science and technology increasingly encroach in traditional actuarial areas, exposure to the likes of R and Python are becoming greater areas of focus too.
The diverse work our clients ask of us as highlighted in the bullet points above also feeds into the knowledge-based training sessions we provide new starters. Rather than a narrow but deep knowledge of certain areas, we aim to provide a broad knowledge of the industry including commercial landscape and key product types, discussion of the regulatory and professional environment, and hands-on exposure to core actuarial methods like reserving and cashflow projection modelling. We firmly believe that individuals perform better in a role if they understand the wider context of their work; the above ideas allied with our recruitment placing value on critical thinking and problem solving skills means that our students are expected to be intellectually curious, engaged and enthusiastic about the work they take on during a client project.
We also believe in a very hands-on approach to really embedding these points – more on this below.
As you’d expect, client requirements often touch on wider areas of soft skills and positive behaviours:
- Highly organised and ability to work well in a team, under pressure to tight deadlines essential.
- Able to take initiative and an enthusiasm for developing processes essential.
- Excellent attention to detail.
- Ability to respond appropriately to moving or competing priorities, and meet deadlines.
- Support in answering queries for scheme underwriters or client services.
- Able to work independently and challenge constructively.
- Ability to think analytically and should be a problem solver.
- Proven ability to work independently to a high technical standard, apply judgement effectively and make clearly communicated recommendations.
These are obviously less direct things to provide training on; in our experience, trying to teach these ideas directly without immediate practical application carries little worth. These dimensions are crucial to exceeding clients’ expectations. One approach is to allow these attributes to develop naturally through manager feedback, performance reviews and professional requirements such as Work-Based Skills (and to a lesser extent in the replacement PPD regime). We believe this development can be accelerated through training and this is highlighted in the example below.
Example of training exercise
At the very early stages, development of skills may take the form of targeted training which is focused only on the specific skill that is being developed. However, at the earliest possible opportunity we frame the skills being learnt across the three key areas (core skills, knowledge and behaviours) highlighted above.
For example, one of the exercises we set for new starters is to develop a policyholder illustration model to a technical specification. The learning objectives of the exercise, with the caveat that some management time is necessary to properly feedback on the work of the student, are numerous:
- Core Skills – Excel modelling design principles; focus on model transparency and ease of review; understanding risks of hard-coding; building cashflow projection and annuity calculations; interpreting regulatory guidance.
- Behaviours – fostering attention to detail; disclosing model limitations and assumptions; developing an awareness of why self-testing often fails and demonstrating the importance of peer review.
- Knowledge – product knowledge, FCA COBS regulatory knowledge, TAS 100 compliance.
Many of our exercises have been developed and continuously refined over a number of years to maximise the breadth of learning they deliver. Other skills and behaviours we seek to hone early through exercises and feedback include:
- Determining materiality of errors.
- Sense-checking of models.
- Understanding parameter sensitivity.
- Effective communication with managers and subject matter experts.
- Drafting clear and concise technical documentation.
- Reviewing, manipulating and visualising complex data sets
- Rigorous testing of a calculation model.
These attributes may resonate with readers as areas in which many actuarial recruits could benefit from additional skills to make a manager’s life easier! We observe that the vast majority of this training is sector agnostic; these skills and behaviours should stand a new actuarial student in good stead for the rest of their career, regardless of whether they are starting their career in Life, GI, Pensions or even in less traditional areas of actuarial practice.
Ongoing development and training
It is important for businesses to appreciate the value of ongoing training of their staff. When staff are aware of their own development journey, retention is improved, and the company benefits from more motivated, better rounded professionals.
The actuarial student’s own sense of development goals will clearly change over time. It is natural for a student to treat qualification as their primary career target but we believe that development of the key skills needed to progress into senior roles after qualification should be considered and invested in prior to passing that final exam. We’ll make training of more experienced staff the subject of a future article.
A small plug …
We’ll be very shortly undertaking our induction training programme to our new intake of FIA and CAA starters over September and October – although that will have a fresh perspective as for the first time it will be delivered almost entirely remotely. APR has provided training services to around a dozen of our clients in a number of the areas highlighted in this article. In addition to more typical delivery of training course, we also offer bite-sized training at regular intervals designed to provide ongoing skills development for more experienced actuarial staff. If you have interest in our training services, please contact Gary Heslop for further details.