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Hot insurance job lures foreign students to state

Tariq Hussain wanted to use the math skills he had learned in his native Pakistan, but it wasn't until he landed in Iowa that he found out that actuarial science might be his ticket to success.

Other foreign nationals are following his lead. Among the three universities in Iowa that offer degrees in actuarial science, Drake and the University of Iowa have seen pronounced shifts in their student bodies. Americans are still in the game. But increasingly, foreigners - Asians such as Chinese, and Malaysians in particular, are sitting in classrooms and acquiring the skills that insurance companies and pension plans depend upon when they're assessing risk and setting prices on the products they sell.

The widening of the talent pool can be a comfort to growing companies such as Nationwide Insurance, which hired Hussain and counts seven foreign nationals among its commercial lines actuarial staff of 17. But it demands extra effort by the insurers, as these potential employees have to be able to qualify for visas from an American government that has been notably stingy in handing them out.

Finding more workers - be they from Moscow, Ia., or Moscow, Russia - is important for Des Moines at a time when economic development officials are predicting a jobs shortfall as great as 60,000 people over the next decade. The Des Moines Partnership is trying to attract workers from all over the country, and the business association is lobbying to allow more skilled workers into the United States.

"These people are the replacement for the U.S. work force that we don't have," said Lori Chesser, an immigration lawyer in Des Moines who advises that hiring skilled foreign nationals is worth the risk and extra expense.

Drake has one of the larger actuarial programs in the Midwest, with 180 students. Slightly more than half of them are from foreign countries, and a third are from Malaysia alone.

The University of Iowa reports that three of its 30 undergraduate pre-actuarial students are foreign nationals. That jumps to 50 - or about 83 percent - of the 60 graduate students.

"Most of our international students come from China," said James Broffitt, a professor in the U of I's department of statistics and actuarial science.

At the University of Northern Iowa, four of 54 actuarial science students are from foreign countries. Syed Kirmani, professor of mathematics at UNI who's in charge of the actuarial science program, said that for now he's content to focus on recruiting locally.

"They're typical Iowa kids, coming from the high schools," said Kirmani, a native of India.

Many facets about actuarial science attract foreign students. Perhaps it's the good wages - a starting actuary will earn $40,000 or more, and a veteran can easily pull in $100,000-plus. Or maybe it's the attention drawn to the field by its perennial ranking as one of the best careers available.

It might even be an attraction for people who like math but aren't that keen on jobs that are tied strictly to, well, math. That was the appeal to Jiunn Hau "Sean" Chin. One of 65 Malaysians studying actuarial science at Drake, he said he enjoys math but was not interested in using it in a science application.

Stuart Klugman, a professor of actuarial science at Drake, has noticed a perceptible shift in the 33 years he has taught the subject.

"It was white, male," he said of the past. Now, many Asians are in the program, and at Drake, at least, Klugman said many women are enrolled.

Yee Fuan "Eva" Heng said she got interested in actuarial studies after spending some time as an administrative assistant in Malaysia. She has a cousin and uncle who are actuaries, so she was familiar with the work they do.

"Besides that, I like to calculate," 24-year-old Heng said.

Drake has drawn so many Malaysians because it set up a program with a university there. Students who take certain courses over two years in their home country can qualify for the final two years of study in Des Moines.

At Nationwide, spokesman Mike Palmer said that graduates such as Hussain have been recruited because "we focus on hiring the best and the brightest."

Hussain had followed his older brother, Waqar, to Drake to study information technology. After Waqar told him about the heavy concentration of insurers in the city, Tariq switched to actuarial science.

"It was something unique to do," said 24-year-old Hussain.

Nationwide has tripled its employment base in Des Moines during the past nine years to more than 4,000, and it plans to add 1,600 more by 2009.

Further, Nationwide human relations analyst Kathi Repka said that the property and casualty insurer "likes to pride ourselves on some diversity."

Repka said that Nationwide has hired 12 foreign nationals for whom it is trying to secure U.S. work visas. Not all are working as actuaries.

Principal Financial Group Inc. is the city's largest insurer. It also has the largest number of actuaries on staff - about 230.

Jim DeVries, senior vice president at Principal, said that it rarely recruits actuaries from college campuses. It has added some foreign nationals to its actuarial ranks in recent years, and is especially keen to add them to its IT staff (where Waqar Hussain works).

But DeVries said the task of hiring a foreign national is hugely burdened by the need to qualify for a U.S. government-issued work permit. The government hands out 65,000 of those visas, called H-1Bs, per year. On its latest application day, on April 2, it received 130,000 requests in a matter of hours.

Qualifying students can legally work for 12 months after graduation before they have to enter the H-1B scramble. But after that, there are too many applicants for too few slots, which means that anyone taking on a new employee may not be able to keep him or her should the H-1B not come through.

"It's a dilemma, not only for Principal, but for every employer," said DeVries. He said Principal would like to see the quota raised.

Many employers aren't willing to put up with that hassle. The result: Klugman said that while Americans are "virtually guaranteed" a job when they graduate, U.S. employment prospects for foreign nationals are considerably less.

"It can be very difficult" for them to find work, Klugman said.

Chin is aware of the H-1B impact on his job prospects. He said the situation puts an extra demand on students such as himself to show companies that they are an employee of choice.

Chin, who has legally secured a summer internship in Chicago with a consulting company, said actuarial science is a worldwide discipline. If he can work here, fine, but he said he's preparing himself for wherever the opportunity may be.

"I came here to study, not to work," Chin said.

Foreign nationals have other big hurdles not faced by their American counterparts - namely, communications and general business skills.

UNI's Kirmani said that experience has taught him that U.S. employers want workers with good communications abilities. So he urges students who are deficient to get training in that area. He also makes sure that they all take enough business courses to minor in that field.

Mathematics is an international language, so a person from one country can understand it as well as someone from another.

However, a career in the industry requires much more than just math aptitude. So at Drake and UNI, for instance, students take business, finance and management classes.

"We're not training math geeks," Klugman said. "We're educating people for business careers."

Reporter S.P. Dinnen can be reached at (515) 284-8543 or sdinnen@dmreg.com

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