Upskill Those Soft Skills

Prepare to thrive, not just survive, in the future Mitchell Stephenson

Within the next two decades, up to 25 percent of U.S. jobs—around 36 million—may be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI).1 This trend toward automation and AI is one of the reasons it’s so important to learn new, relevant skills. This concept of learning new skills—which can boost one’s potential, career growth and help to prepare for future ways of working—is known as “upskilling.” Upskilling is often referred to in the context of learning new programs, applications or technology.

One critical area to focus on for upskilling is nontechnical skills like leadership, communication and teamwork. This skill set is collectively often referred to as “soft skills.” Not only do employers compensate employees who excel in both technical and soft skills at a higher rate than those who excel in one or the other,2 these soft skills can also prepare professionals for future ways of working that will be less centered around technical proficiencies. Jobs with more of a management and business focus are among those least vulnerable to automation. In fact, one of the least vulnerable job types is “management analytics”—which involves understanding factors and designing solutions that influence management decisions—and is a field that requires both strong technical and soft skills.3

Perceptions of Actuaries

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke that an actuary is like an accountant who couldn’t stand the excitement? Popular media often portrays actuaries as somewhat anti-social, quirky individuals. An example is the movie Along Came Polly, where Ben Stiller plays an overly analytical, slightly obsessive-compulsive “risk assessment expert,” also known as an actuary. In the movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Chris Pratt’s character makes fun of an ex-girlfriend by asking if she is dating an “insurance actuary”—implying that she has become a boring individual.

Even given this perception, the job of actuary historically has been ranked among the top three professions in the United States.4 However, other fields like data scientists and statisticians are gaining ground.5 Additionally, employer impressions indicate that actuaries need improvement on their soft skills. A 2009 study showed that actuaries rank very highly in the minds of their employers in categories like quantitative skills, attention to detail and trustworthiness when compared to fields like finance MBAs. However, they ranked significantly lower in categories like strategic thinking, effective communication, management and interpersonal skills.6 This last set of skills is what employers value so much in addition to technical skills. They are skills that make jobs like management analytics coveted and less vulnerable to automation.

Opportunities for Upskilling

For highly technical professionals like actuaries, here are some specific areas where upskilling their soft skills can help best prepare them for the future.

Use Free Time to Learn

According to an AA Insurance survey,7 70 percent of individuals describe their driving as above average. However, by the very nature of a normal curve, you’d expect about the same percentage of drivers to be above and below average. This statistic highlights a “blind spot” that most us have, which is the inability to self-assess our skills realistically against those of others.

Everyone has areas upon which they need to work and improve. The first step in developing in those areas is to take an honest assessment of your skills. This can be done by seeking candid feedback from peers and managers, using data from performance reviews and taking an analytical feedback survey, like one on emotional intelligence or a 360 assessment.

Once the areas of development are identified, it’s critical to explicitly dedicate time to address them. It’s best to do this consistently over time to set a pattern of learning. As examples, look no further than Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jack Ma, who all abide by the “five-hour rule.”8 Under this rule, they spend one hour a day for each workday learning something new. One way to make time for learning every day or week is to use lunchtime, or explicitly set aside a consistent time during working hours, to dedicate to upskilling. Another way is to use commute time—assuming that the world is back to normal and most individuals are commuting again—to listen to audiobooks or podcasts that address your areas of improvement. No matter how it’s done, using your free time to learn and address those development areas—especially soft skills—is critical to your ability to learn and grow.

Learn From Others

As important as taking time to learn each day is, there is almost no replacement for having an effective network of individuals you admire and trust—and can lean on—for practical guidance when needed. Some of the most actionable advice I’ve received has come from one-on-one discussions with mentors and coaches. This includes valuable advice on time management and work/life balance, giving and receiving feedback, and presenting in front of others. The direct advice from people in my network was—in many cases—more valuable than what I’d learned in books or articles because it was catered directly to my circumstances.

I’ve also learned that it is imperative to look outside of your chosen field to learn key skills from other professionals. In my current position, I lead a team of mostly nonactuaries who work closely with actuaries and actuarial associates. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this group in the last few years. Some of the ways they have helped me include demonstrating when to pick up the phone or have an in-person conversation vs. sending an email, how to write effectively and concisely, and how important relationship-building is in leading to successful day-to-day interactions with colleagues and peers.

Actuaries must partner with individuals who work in related fields, like risk and finance professionals, product or compliance specialists, and sales representatives. From them, actuaries can learn how to rely on skills other than technical expertise in the actuarial field, and it can be a daily reminder as to how important the soft skill set is to one’s success.

Practice Public Speaking as a Valuable Skill

Warren Buffet—who is chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway—advises that the one skill that can most greatly benefit one’s career is public speaking.9 In fact, Buffet advises that effective public speaking can increase one’s career value by 50 percent. However, public speaking is very difficult. A famous survey on this topic shows that the most common fear among participants—cited by more than 40 percent—was public speaking. The fear of public speaking was listed by twice as many participants as was death.10

After being selected as the incoming president of the Actuaries Club of Hartford & Springfield a few years ago, I realized that I would need to address an audience of more than 400 attendees. This certainly triggered my own fear of public speaking. When I asked mentors and coaches how to improve my public speaking skills, they all said the same thing: practice, practice, practice. They reminded me there is no “magic bullet” to replace the actual experience gained from public speaking.

In addition to presenting at industry conferences and presenting to coworkers, joining Toastmasters was a great way to learn and manage my anxiety that went along with public speaking. This organization gave me a chance to practice in a safe setting where my peers provided constructive feedback on how to improve. One of my proudest professional achievements within the last few years was presenting to a room of more than 100 individuals and feeling that it was relatively easy. This was only possible because of the practice, practice, practice—including in front of much larger audiences—that reduced my anxiety and made public speaking feel more natural and less daunting.


Nineteenth-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” Growing—or upskilling—in an economy that is likely to see a high percentage of automation in the coming years and decades is fundamental to one’s future success.

This is a call to action to all readers to self-identify, address, learn from others—including those outside of the actuarial profession—and ultimately practice upskilling those soft skills, chief among those being public speaking. These actions will help individuals in technical fields like actuarial work thrive, and not just survive, future ways of working.

Mitchell Stephenson, FSA, MAAA, is the head of actuarial model management and controls at Prudential Financial. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.