Career Change: Winemaking to Actuarial Science

Written by Jesse Nickerson: photo (12)

I’ve finally made it. After spending years planning a career change, committing hundreds of hours to studying for exams, and creating more resume drafts than I care to count, I have landed my first job in an actuarial department. It certainly wasn’t an easy or routine career change. A few months ago I was the Head Winemaker at a winery in Washington State. Now I’m back in New England where I grew up, working in the insurance industry.

I studied Mathematics in college and after a couple years of high school teaching I went back to school for my Masters degree. That led to college teaching and eventually…winemaking? During my years at the winery, which I loved, I pondered what I wanted to do next and I found that becoming an actuary was consistently running through my mind. I had known people in my undergraduate and graduate classes who had pursued the career and so I began by reaching out to them to see what they thought of it. I also read as much information as I could find in online forums and actuarial websites. The most common piece of advice that I found was “Take some exams!” I eventually decided to give it a go and committed to taking the first exam. Throughout the next year, I studied for the second exam and began to put my feelers out for jobs in the Seattle area. I didn’t receive a single interview or get a single phone call returned.

I continued with my winery job but knew that if I was seriously going to make the change, I needed to put myself out there fully. If I wanted a job in the beer or wine industry in Washington, I knew the right people. However, I didn’t have any connections in insurance there and felt like my unusual resume was not helping me make the right impression. I decided to move back to New England for a lot of reasons. One of them was that the insurance job market seemed larger there. Another reason, and maybe the most important one – was that I knew people there. Like they say – It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

I am well aware that a lot of people have had longer, more frustrating job searches than I, so I won’t dwell on how bad mine was. Suffice it to say though, as someone who has always interviewed well and found jobs relatively easily, after having dozens of resume submissions and follow up phone calls ignored, I was starting to doubt myself and lose hope. I figured that since I was not the 22-year-old, recent college graduate with a couple of internships, maybe I would never find an entry-level actuarial job. After all, I was in my 30’s, hadn’t studied actuarial science and, honestly, even after a lot of research, didn’t really know what an actuary did all day.

I was determined to give it one more try and so I called my alma mater’s career counseling office, contacted every person that I knew who worked in insurance and spread the word to all of my family and friends that I was looking to become an actuary. Then…it happened. A ridiculously weak connection landed me an interview. My friend’s Dad (my old Little League coach) asked a golf buddy of his, who was an insurance broker, about actuarial job opportunities. He passed along the contact information that he had for a Lead Actuary to me through a twice-forwarded email. I figured it was a long shot, but I reached out, started a conversation and was in the office interviewing within 10 days. They didn’t have a job posted either which means I never would have submitted my resume if not for the weak connection.

I could tell you that I have my current job because I worked hard to make the career change – which is true. However, I think that I have my current job because I didn’t give up when I became frustrated and I reached out for help from as many people as I could possibly tap. Eventually, I was in the right place at the right time. If you are an aspiring career changer like I was, I have this advice for you: be patient and persistent in your search and don’t underestimate the power of weak connections.