INProfile: Susan Winkler

Actuarial Boot Camp

by Carolyn S. Ellis

Ms. Ellis is Features Editor for Advisor Magazine / e-newsLink. Connect with her by e-mail:

Since 2003 the Connecticut Insurance and Financial Services Cluster (CT IFS) has worked to strengthen the insurance and financial services industry in Hartford, the nation’s insurance capital. Through workforce development, policy advocacy, and business and economic development initiatives, CT IFS serves the region and its corporate sponsors. To fill actuarial ranks with locally trained, qualified actuaries, CT IFS created a one-week Actuarial Boot Camp to introduce talented math students to local opportunities for an actuarial career. Susan Winkler is the executive director of CT IFS, and we spoke with her about her innovative academic program and how it keeps a steady flow of prospects to fill the ranks.
L&HA: Tell us about CT IFS.
SW: CT IFS is part of the MetroHartford Alliance. On behalf of our 30 corporate sponsors, we work with public officials and academic leaders to bring the needs of the insurance and financial services industry to their attention. Our efforts are intended to create a stronger economy in Connecticut and employment for local students while meeting the needs of insurance and financial services companies located here.

L&HA: Connecticut has the largest concentration of actuaries in the United Sates. Are companies finding it hard to fill those jobs?
SW: About seven years ago we had a shortage of actuaries even though we were ranking number one in actuarial employment. As companies looked for creative ways to satisfy the demand, our Actuarial Boot Camp was born. The idea was to foster the development of actuaries from a very early age, to give high-performing math students an idea of what they can do. We have satisfied our demand and are building the actuarial profession as an economic development vehicle.
Each year the host company for boot camp rotates through CT IFS members. The Phoenix recognized how critical the actuarial profession is to their operations, the industry, and the state of Connecticut and took on the role of sponsor the first year. In 2015 Phoenix stepped up for the second time.

L&HA: Does the insurance industry compete with other industries for actuaries?
SW: Actuaries have been part of the financial services industry and the hedge fund industry, both prominent and prevalent in Connecticut. Now actuaries are being cultivated into specialized insurance companies, niche companies. As we become more data-driven, I see actuaries becoming more involved in data and business analytics.

L&HA: How do you attract 17-19 year-olds to boot camp?
SW: In our marketing we’re clear that they will learn what an actuary is and what they do. They will meet several actuaries. We will teach probability in different ways qualifying them to take the first of the certification exams by the Society of Actuaries. That’s a real teaser if they love math and want to take it to the next level. They have to make it fit with summer jobs and family vacations. But honestly, they don’t know what they’re getting into until they get here.

L&HA: That’s true of many things in life. Tell us more about the program.
SW: We include soft skills like effective negotiation and communication. (In our evaluations students give us high marks for this.) We include an Excel primer. Besides the intense technical training in probability, we have actuary guest speakers from many disciplines including health, life, property and casualty, and consulting actuaries. Lecturers this year came from Aetna, The Hartford, MassMutual, Phoenix, Prudential, Travelers, UnitedHealthcare, Voya Financial and others.
Camp runs daily from 8:30 AM to 4 PM, and there’s homework. Don’t forget these are kids and we can’t talk to them all day, so we have them play games with applications or M&Ms and marbles. We also feed them really well – pizza, ice cream, and plenty of snacks.

About seven years ago we had a shortage of actuaries even though we were ranking number one in actuarial employment

L&HA: How do you find the young women who attend?
SW: Let me clarify that boot camp is open to everyone. In our first year all participants were men, but now enrollment is pretty evenly divided. We encourage diversity and we work with urban centers here in Hartford to encourage students to apply. Many of our guest speakers are female: some young, some older, some have families, some are single moms. We show you can have a challenging career with good work/life balance.

The student profile has changed dramatically, as has the actuarial profession. We have students who play baseball or football, do music, or have other extracurricular interests. This is the new STEM student. Employers, too, are looking for a balanced actuary. Understanding business operations is more important now, and some of our students take business courses with their math. We factor this into our design of the camp.

L&HA: Is boot camp part of our national effort to build STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers and proficiency?
SW: It ties in nicely, but really, it’s a business decision for us.

L&HA: Is an actuarial career a route to executive leadership?
SW: It can be, and we demonstrate this with a culmination lunch hosted by senior management of the host company. During the week boot campers have met chief actuaries and others at executive level, but in the board room (with a hot, plated lunch) students often will recognize that this profession can lead to an executive career.

L&HA: How do you address the interests and needs of these students as Millennials?
SW: During the week we bring in young graduates working in the field. They often talk about participating in a leadership program within their company or in HYPE, Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs. This membership program of 4,000 young professionals offers opportunities to network, socialize, and volunteer in the community.

L&HA: The competition for top students must be tough as demand for actuaries grows across the industry and other sectors.
SW: We understand that some students will study out of state, where there will be career fairs and employers trying to pick the very best. We want to show our students that the jobs are here in Connecticut and we hope they will return to join our workforce. We host Get Hired, our own annual career fair in January when college students are home. Last year more than 450 students came to find a job or internship. We also support High School, Inc., a four-year college prep school in Hartford for high school students wanting to work in financial services and insurance. Last year all graduates went on to 2-year or 4-year colleges.

While CT IFS is dedicated to work force development planning, we also equally support a strong business environment in Connecticut. We work heavily on legislative work and legislative affairs, as well as with our partners in the State Department of Economic and Community Development to encourage businesses to come into Connecticut.