(Header image via Business Insurance)
Navigating the job market as recent college graduate can prove to be a daunting task, particularly for young meteorology professionals who seemingly face more difficulty launching their careers than their peers who majored in other STEM fields. This observation is noted in Tim Marquis’ recent article, An Honest Conversation about Early Career Professions in Meteorology. Marquis details the various reasons behind the grievances of early career meteorologists which include lack of available job opportunities as well as poor pay, hours, and job stability. The article has spurred a significant discussion throughout the meteorology circles on social media, in which several good counterpoints are also made. Rather than dissect Marquis’ arguments, which I mostly agree with, I want to utilize this active discussion to introduce the Catastrophe Modeling industry, an aspect of atmospheric science that is relatively unknown within the meteorology community.
A hidden corner of private sector meteorology
When referring to the apparent lack of private sector meteorology jobs, Marquis notes the limited exposure students have to these career paths.
How can professors, advisers, and graduate students speak about private career experience when it’s not something they’ve personally done?
Additionally, those with meteorology degrees may be reluctant to seek non-traditional ways of applying their skill sets.
There’s a feeling that besides broadcast, NWS, research, and academia, there aren’t any jobs because candidates are looking for jobs with ‘meteorologist’ in the title.
While I can’t speak for all well and lesser known fields within the private sector, I can speak about the growing availability of meteorology and meteorology-adjacent jobs from the industry in which I have spent the first 4 and half years of my post-graduate career: CAT MODELING.
No, not that kind of cat modeling. CATASTROPHE MODELING.
Unless you went to Penn State, and inevitably work for my former employer (which seemingly hires every PSU met alum), it’s highly likely you’ve never heard of the cat modeling industry. Speaking from personal experience, I didn’t know the industry even existed until I was in graduate school. We’ll discuss why its relatively unknown and how you can get into it later. First let’s talk about what cat modeling is.
The basics of catastrophe modeling and the industry around it
The insurance industry, particularly on the property and casualty side, faces a critical and unique challenge of quantifying their natural disaster risk. Major natural disasters (as well as human-caused disasters) have the capability to bankrupt insurance companies by forcing them to payout on many of their policies at once. In order to remain resilient during this type of scenario, Insurance companies purchase their own protective coverage known as reinsurance. In addition, unlike your everyday fires, accidents, and burglaries, significantly less historical data exists for these large catastrophic events. Fully understanding disaster risk and valuing catastrophe insurance and reinsurance coverage requires digging beyond the actuarial data.
This is where the catastrophe models come into play. These numerical models employ the latest science, including information from global climate models, to project the likelihood of event magnitudes impacting various locations. These models also involve engineering and economic research to determine the impact various hazard scenarios will have on property damage and financial loss. The industry revolving around these catastrophe model products creates a plethora of meteorology and meteorology-adjacent jobs. The range of catastrophe modeling roles include but are not limited to: model research and development, software development, data and risk analysis, business consulting, product sales, risk trading and investing, insurance underwriting, and reinsurance broking. Some of these positions require applying more meteorological knowledge than others, but the quantitative background gained through a met degree comes in handy for every single role. In a flexible private sector industry, you will likely get to experience a wide variety of these job types early in your career, and after just a few years, you may gravitate toward the type of role you find the most rewarding.
There are several types of businesses involved in catastrophe modeling. Some of them are primarily cat model developers who license their products and services to companies in the insurance industry. Also, the insurance industry companies themselves, are steadily increasing their roles in cat modeling. These roles include data and risk analysts who use vendor cat modeling software as well as in-house model researchers and developers who enable their business to produce their own custom-fit view of risk. The types of companies within the insurance industry who utilize catastrophe modeling include primary insurers (i.e your Geicos, Allstates, and State Farms who write coverages for consumers), reinsurers (those backing the primary insurers), reinsurance brokers (companies arranging and structuring reinsurance deals), Insurance Linked Securities (ILS) funds & managers (work with reinsurance in capital markets, including catastrophe bonds). The common goal for all of these companies is to spread and diversify their catastrophe risk so that a single event (or series of events, hello 2017 Atlantic hurricane season) doesn’t take down their business.
In addition to companies within the insurance realm, catastrophe modeling can benefit any business that risks financial loss during a natural disaster. Banks for instance, risk massive default losses during a hurricane, in which potentially thousands of homeowners the bank lent money to chose not to pay off their mortgage because their damaged house is both literally and figuratively underwater. Perhaps the most important challenge facing the growing cat modeling industry is determining which business can benefit financially by better understanding their catastrophe risk.
Your role in the cat modeling industry
Like any private sector business, the cat modeling industry is not immune to external market influence or product failure hiccups. Your cat modeling role may evolve frequently to meet arising business challenges. One of your biggest challenges will be working alongside people with a wide array of educational backgrounds. In addition to meteorologists, the cat modeling industry also needs to employ geologists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, GIS experts, and (GASP!) people with business degrees. If you’re not careful, your more technical colleagues and clients will pick apart your methodology, and if you can’t explain the science in layman’s terms, the more business oriented folks will fail to see the value in your products or services. Furthermore, the relatively young (~30 years) catastrophe modeling industry is embedded deep within the old-timey insurance industry, which has existed since the Babylonians. This often leads to clashing business ideologies which can be challenging to navigate. A prime example of this clashing is the cat modeling industry’s hard steer into “cloud” based data and analytics. Meanwhile, most insurance industry businesses already have their own systems in place and are often reluctant to take the risk of sending their data to a new environment. While these challenges require meteorologists in the cat modeling industry to learn about an unfamiliar sector of commerce, the reward is great for the innovative people who can connect the scientific world with the business world.
Several job benefits exists for the meteorologists who work in catastrophe modeling. For starters, the entry-level salaries in cat modeling are comparable to those in many engineering fields, and the roles provide ample opportunity for career growth. Your time at work will almost certainly be standard Monday through Friday business hours, and your office will likely be located in a place you’d enjoy living. Because the cat modeling industry itself is young, a lot of your colleagues will also be young professionals, which as a young professional myself, I would describe as ideal.
Becoming a catastrophe modeler
So the catastrophe modeling industry sounds pretty interesting, and you’d like to see what kind of jobs are out there? Great! As Marquis mentions however, you’ll have to look beyond the traditional “meteorologist” label in your job searches. Some combination of “Catastrophe risk analyst“, “catastrophe modeler“, “catastrophe modeling” usually yields a few pages of openings. Just about every position requires at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field (hey that’s you, recent meteorology grad!), and an advanced degree will almost certainly help your case when applying. Some of the research and development positions may even require a Master’s or PhD.
Getting your foot in the door with one of these companies is perhaps the more difficult challenge. One easy way to seek these valuable connections is to talk to your professors about your interest in cat modeling. Even though meteorologist in academia, as Marquis notes, don’t often discuss private sector careers like catastrophe modeling, that doesn’t mean they don’t know about catastrophe modeling. Speaking again from personal experience, when I first learned about the industry, I discussed my interest in it with a professor of mine over a few beers, and to my surprise, he knew two colleagues from his grad school days who worked in cat modeling. He was kind enough to get me in touch with these colleagues, and the rest is history. If there turns out to be too many degrees of separation between you and any folks in the industry, don’t be afraid to look people up and shoot them a resume along with a little self-introduction. Because cat modeling is tied closely with the insurance industry, there are plenty of head hunters on LinkedIn with all sorts of industry connections who would love nothing more than to hook you up with a job.
If you’re a recent or future meteorology gradate, and not thrilled about your current job or the results of your recent job searches, why not give catastrophe modeling a try? If you’re unsure about following this type of career path and need to make a decision soon, it doesn’t hurt to go to grad school. Just as Marquis describes, I too found myself disappointed in the job market as I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t interested in broadcast meteorology or private sector operational jobs. The NWS meanwhile, was in a hiring freeze. Had I known about catastrophe modeling as an undergraduate, perhaps I wouldn’t have pursued a master’s degree (but in hindsight, I’m extremely glad I did). In addition to advancing your credentials, grad school is a great way to take more time to explore the various hidden corners of meteorology careers. If a private sector career dealing with Mother Nature’s largest disasters does appeal to you however, come make the leap over to cat modeling.