Actuaries' work is no longer confined to the world of finance

Despite regularly being ranked as one of the most desirable jobs by US employment report Jobs Rated Almanac, becoming an actuary isn't usually on the radar of people setting off into the working world.

Fortunately for PwC consulting actuary Andrea Gluyas, her colleagues across the firm spot potential actuarial talent during graduate recruitment and send them her way.

Gluyas, 49, says once she has explained what an actuary is - in her words, a financial mathematician - it's not a hard sell.

"It's actually getting people to find out about the possibility of the job because it is so small that people don't come across it," she says.

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"That is a real challenge for us."

The newly elected president of the New Zealand Society of Actuaries - the first woman in its 60-year history - made the call to become an actuary in her final years of secondary school.

A bright student with a real love of maths, she baulked at heading off to medical school, the preferred choice for top scholars at her secondary school, New Plymouth Girls' High.

A good friend's brother suggested becoming an actuary, and she's never looked back.

Being incredibly numerate is at the heart of actuarial work, but Gluyas says the path into an actuarial career can be through a commerce-focused degree, as well as one based around pure maths.

Victoria University has also begun offering an actuarial science major, the only New Zealand university to do so, as part of either a commerce or science degree.

Gluyas has a BA in maths and French - she was able to keep up the French at school after dropping biology when switching her focus away from a medical career - and got her start in the industry while studying as an actuary intern at insurance firm National Mutual.

"I love having the opportunity to hire people with different interest groups and other specialist areas into the team, so it's really great for the diversity of the profession to get both those kinds of people as well as, of course, the people with BA's in French and maths - they're good too."

Though a head for numbers is a must-have, Gluyas says actuaries need to be thorough, have the discipline to ensure everything is correct, bring insight to their work and be able to explain what they've done, making communication skills a key requirement.

"I think it was undervalued in the past and I think it's much more important now.

"We want people who can talk to people about what they're doing."

They are a big part of our career and it's just such a huge moment when you finally get through all of those.

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Actuaries have traditionally been part of the finance sector, particularly life insurance, where the work focuses on solving problems involving money and uncertain future events, she says.

It's still how most actuaries get their start, but increasingly there are opportunities to take that focus on the long-term and in-depth statistical analysis into the public sector as part of the Government's social investment approach.

"Rather than having programmes that are assessed after a year, or two or three years, actually looking at whether programmes make a difference to somebody's entire future lifetime," says Gluyas.

"It's about bringing the way actuaries use past data and analyse it and then bring in judgment and expectations about the future, then model future lifetimes to really try and make a difference, really try and work out what things that happen to someone early on in their life will affect their future outcomes for the rest of their adult life."

While the industry is changing to reflect new demands for its skills, it has been slow to attract women.

Gluyas has tracked the number of female actuaries, which has hovered around the 20 per cent mark since 2001.

Becoming a fully-fledged actuary means completing a postgraduate qualification administered by one of the overseas professional bodies - New Zealand's industry is too small to have its own fellowship qualification.

Actuarial students can expect to take up to 10 years to complete the series of exams, which have pass rates as low as 20 per cent for some of the more advanced papers.

"They are a big part of our career and it's just such a huge moment when you finally get through all of those," says Gluyas.

"It's quite unusual to get through without failing any, which can be a bit hard to take because we do recruit quite good people into the profession." It's also a recognised barrier to women in the profession.

The number of women studying the actuarial qualification is increasing - it's now up around the 50 per cent mark - but completion rates are far lower than their male colleagues.

Most women, and men, will delay having children until after qualifying, says Gluyas.

In this respect Gluyas bucked the trend, studying for her exams while on maternity leave and working part-time to complete the qualification.

"That really focused my mind on getting through them and using the time that you spend studying really effectively to do that."

Even now that she's qualified and her children have left school, Gluyas has maintained the part-time work schedule, devoting the balance of her time to giving back.

"Both contributing to the children's lives in terms of volunteering at school and around their sport and also volunteering professionally through the society, so I've done lots of those in that time that I don't work."