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Actuaries at SSA

What is an actuary? An actuary, wherever he/she may be employed, is first and foremost a professional, in every sense of the term. This means, among other things, that there is a specialized body of knowledge which the actuary must master, that there are one or more organizations which publish journals containing research papers and commentary on current issues, and that there are codes of ethics to which members agree to be bound in their public activities.

Actuaries command wide respect in the business and financial community. It is not a large profession -- as compared, for example, with those of accountants or lawyers -- but the reputation of its members for strong technical competence combined with an awareness of what is practical is widely recognized.

What do actuaries do? Many actuaries work for insurance companies where they maintain sound premium and reserve structures for the various insurance and annuity contracts being offered to the general public. Some also have become involved in accounting, computer programming, and long-range planning. Other actuaries are independent consultants advising private companies (and sometimes governments as well) on the design and costs of pension programs, and on a variety of other employee benefit arrangements.

Furthermore, growing public recognition of what actuaries have to offer has led to a significant number of them now being active in government work of one kind or other, sometimes at the state level (most often in state insurance departments but occasionally also in the administration of retirement systems for state employees) and sometimes at the federal level.

What does actuarial work in the federal government involve? The federal government offers a variety of interesting and challenging positions in the actuarial field. Actuarial positions are found in the Social Security Administration (SSA), Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Treasury Department (Internal Revenue Service), Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Department of Veterans' Affairs, Labor Department, Office of Personnel Management, Public Health Service, General Accounting Office, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Energy, Railroad Retirement Board and Department of Defense.

All of these positions require not only a sound knowledge and understanding of basic actuarial principles but also a similar knowledge and understanding of the subject areas in which the particular organization is involved. Some of the diverse subject areas coming under actuarial scrutiny are pension plans, Treasury notes and bonds, taxation of annuities, unemployment compensation, and costing of proposed changes in federal pension programs such as Social Security, or the Civil Service Retirement System.

Most of these positions are located in the Washington metropolitan area. The exceptions are the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, both located in Baltimore, the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Philadelphia, and the Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago.

What do actuaries in the Social Security Administration do? Social Security is the single largest employee benefit plan in the country, perhaps in the world. Monitoring and evaluating the cost impact of the many proposals that are being made all the time is one important, but by no means the only, task of the actuaries working for SSA. Overall review of the soundness of the balance between obligations for benefits being built up and the social security taxes being collected is central to the responsibilities of the Office of the Chief Actuary. This involves extensive research into short-term and long-term demographic and economic trends, analysis of experience in mortality and morbidity rates, and the preparation of regular reports and special studies on the financial aspects of the Social Security system that are of concern to the Congress and the general public.

Apart from this work, actuaries in SSA are frequently called upon to address national and international meetings of actuarial organizations, to testify before Congressional committees on the financial effect of various suggested amendments to the law, and to write articles for various publications on the actuarial status of the program.

What is needed to prepare for an actuarial career? Since actuarial work calls for a good grasp of mathematics, it is generally recommended that anyone looking to an actuarial career should take a substantial number of mathematics courses in high school and college and be prepared to continue this study into the employment period as well. Familiarity with concepts from economics, accounting, and law is also necessary if one hopes to work in the more advanced phases of the actuarial profession.

To qualify as an actuary in federal employment, at any level, applicants must have successfully completed one of the following basic requirements:

  • A bachelor's degree that included courses in actuarial science, mathematics, relevant statistics, business, finance, economics, insurance, or computer science totaling at least 24 semester hours. This course work must have included a minimum of 12 semester hours of mathematics that included differential and integral calculus and one or more courses in mathematics for which these calculus courses were prerequisites, or
  • An appropriate combination of education and experience, i.e., technical work experience in actuarial support work or in mathematics. This education must have included at least 24 semester hours of courses as described above.

These basic requirements (which apply to all starting positions) would normally permit a candidate to start work at the GS-5 level. A candidate for employment with a college grade-point average of 3.0 or better (on a 4.0 scale) may be hired at a GS-7 level. In addition to the basic requirements, the following amounts and levels of education, experience, and/or exams qualify for grades GS-7 and above, as shown:

  • GS-7 One year of graduate education in the subject areas of actuarial science, mathematics, statistics, business, finance, economics, insurance, or computer science; or one year of actuarial experience equivalent to the GS-5 level; or successful completion of one of the SOA, CAS, or JBEA examinations.
  • GS-9 A master's degree or equivalent graduate degree, or 2 years of progressively higher level graduate education leading to a master's degree, in one of the subject areas listed above; or one year of actuarial experience equivalent to the GS-7 level; or successful completion of two of the SOA, CAS, or JBEA examinations.
  • GS-11 Ph.D or equivalent doctoral degree, or 3 years of progressively higher level graduate education leading to a Ph.D, in one of the subject areas listed above; or one year of actuarial experience equivalent to the GS-9 level and successful completion of three of the SOA, CAS, or JBEA examinations.
  • GS-12 One year of actuarial experience equivalent to the GS-11 level and successful completion of four of the SOA or CAS examinations or three of the JBEA examinations.
  • GS-13 and Above One year of actuarial experience equivalent to the next lower grade level and Associateship in the SOA or CAS or being an Enrolled Actuary.

Please see the Office of Personnel Management's website for complete details.

What are Social Security actuaries paid? Beginning salaries depend largely on the individual's experience and educational background. The Social Security Administration can give an appointment at a rate that is above the minimum specified for a particular GS grade level. Such appointments are made on a case-by-case basis when an individual's experience and salary history warrant such consideration. In addition, positions in the actuarial series are established as "career ladders". This means that initially, with acceptable performance, an individual will advance quickly through the GS grade levels. Actuaries in the government have in the course of their work important contacts with their fellow professionals in private employment, and the special training and experience resulting from government service makes many of them in great demand in private firms as well.

How do I get further information about actuarial work at Social Security? For further information on meeting eligibility requirements for federal employment as an actuary, write to Karen Glenn.
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Last reviewed or modified Monday, February 1, 2010
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