Sri Lanka’s sole female Associate Actuary speaks

Tuesday, 18 January 2011 00:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Saroja Gunetilleke at a glance seems like any other young professional working in the insurance industry; however she is not only a qualified Actuary of the Institute of Actuaries, UK, but achieving this honour at the young age of 26 makes her the youngest and only female Associate Actuary in Sri Lanka.

She obtained three degrees from prestigious universities in the UK in order to gain this status, a truly impressive feat. The overachiever who has now set her sights on qualifying as a Fellow Actuary explained what made her follow this somewhat obscure but prestigious career path and her plans for the future. Following are excerpts from the interview:

By Cassandra Mascarenhas

Q: Could you define what an actuary is and what the work entails?

A: An actuary is a professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty. A study published in 2010 in fact ranked an actuary as the number one job in the United States. The actuarial profession is a very specialised field in the financial sector. Actuarial skills are useful to many sectors and this includes insurance, pensions and healthcare. Taking for example an insurance company, an actuary’s role there would be to estimate the liabilities of the company as well as to design products and price them, etc.

Q: Could you tell me more about yourself?

A: I studied at Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo, where I was an all rounder, excelling both in my studies and in tennis. I was made the overall tennis captain after representing the team from the age of 10 and have also represented the Sri Lanka Junior Tennis Team at overseas tournaments and received Sri Lanka school colours awarded by the Education Ministry. I was also a prefect. Even back then, my favourite subject was mathematics which is why I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in it.

Q: What made you pursue such an unusual career?

A: I first did a degree in mathematics at the University of Manchester. It was there actually that one of my friends got me interested in actuarial science; she explained what an actuary was and what they do and that basically got me thinking. I was always interested in math and actuarial science dealt with statistics and financial math and economics. So I basically thought it was a good idea. I then went on to do a graduate diploma and then my masters (in actuarial science), both in the UK but this time at the University of Kent. I then did the rest of the exams on my own and qualified as an associate actuary.

Q: How did you manage to get to where you are so quickly?

A: Well, I finished school when I was 18, my undergrad took three years to complete, the diploma and masters took another year each. I’ve in fact completed all of my exams including the fellowship exams – there are 15 exams in total. I’ve just qualified as an associate actuary at the moment as I need more work experience to qualify as a Fellow.

Q: What were your plans before you decided to become an actuary?

A: Like I mentioned earlier, back in school I was only interested in math, so I always knew I would do something related to the subject but at the time I was not very sure where a math degree would get me. My degree was in math so I was thinking of something along the lines of investment banking but then I was introduced to actuarial sciences in my second year in university.

Q: Why do you think the career of an actuary is downplayed somewhat in Sri Lanka?

A: It maybe because there aren’t many actuaries here, so you really don’t tend to hear about it. I mean, I myself heard of the profession when I was in the UK. It’s a career that’s far more recognised overseas, especially in Europe and the US. It is in fact one of the highest paid jobs in the US.

The Insurance Board of Sri Lanka, the regulator of the industry, also states that a life insurance company cannot operate without an actuary – it is an actual regulation. There are only two Sri Lankan Actuaries in the insurance industry in Sri Lanka and they do work for many insurance companies but other companies get foreign consultants to do their work. With the new regulations imposed, the industry is going to require more actuarial input, but I think the issue here is that most see it merely as a regulation than an actual need.

Q: Would you recommend others to follow this career path?

A: Yes, I would because even though the career has limited scope in Sri Lanka, it is very much in demand overseas. There are in fact quite a few people doing the exams here as well now as one does not have to study abroad to obtain the qualification. I think there are about 30 people sitting for the exams here at the moment so I would say the subject of actuarial sciences is already picking up here.

Q: How can one obtain the actuarial qualification here?

A: One can sit for the Institute of Actuaries, UK exams in Sri Lanka and a few of the modules are examined online. Obtaining the qualification requires a lot of self study. I myself completed my final exams here. If you do a diploma or masters relatively well you get exemptions, then you don’t have to sit for the institute exams again – in my case for instance, I obtained first classes so I was exempted from quite a number of exams. I sat for the exams through the UK Institute of Actuaries and I believe one could sit for the Australian and American exams in Sri Lanka as well although I am not familiar with the procedure for that.

Q: What are your plans for the near future?

A:I’m actually quite happy with what I’ve achieved at the moment but my goal is to qualify as a Fellow. The Institute of Actuaries has specific work experience requirements, according to which I need two years more of work experience. This requires me to work under a qualified person and I may need to go overseas to gain the required experience. My ambition is to work as a Fellow Actuary in the insurance industry in Sri Lanka.