Your college reps and, after you graduate, first contact with a company will likely come from HR. They are well trained to spot the qualities the firm desires, and closely screen candidates. Should all go well, you will ultimately get to meet the real decision makers -- actuaries and their superiors who keep the company running. Should you end up meeting with them, you'll be a finalist for the position you're seeking.
Hiring among industries
Most of the information in this section is drawn from the insurance and pension industries, and all of the hiring information is readily applicable. Other employers of actuaries are somewhat different, and are only now starting to hire directly from college. Here's a rundown of other opportunities.
Financial services firms
More and more, as we've discussed, investment banks, mutual fund companies, hedge funds, retail banks and other investment services companies are hiring actuaries to ensure that they're minimizing every single investment risk possible while squeezing out every bit of gains imaginable. This is advanced work, and beyond the usual insurance industry most actuaries perform. While these companies will hire from graduate schools, especially candidates with both an actuarial background and an MBA, it's rare to find them looking for candidates at the undergraduate level. You can certainly get hired by Morgan Stanley as an undergrad, but not as an actuary per se -- more like a sales or investment position.
Generally, these companies will want to hire accomplished actuaries with at least three to five years experience under their belt, and with demonstrated knowledge of and work with the capital markets. These positions are also generally rare, so if you want to apply your skills on Wall Street, you'll have prove yourself and lobby hard.
The hiring practice of consulting firms depends on size. Large financial consultants keep actuaries on staff, and often hire out of college like insurers. Smaller firms, especially those specialized in risk management, will want experienced actuaries with a wide variety of skills. That will mean five or more years' work experience. They also welcome master's degree holders, but will still want to see experience. Finally, they'll be looking for innovation, too. You'll have to demonstrate that you've applied your actuarial science skills in unique ways to further your company's work. Consultants never quite know what they'll be asked to do & so they seek people who can apply their knowledge with great flexibility and creativity.
The federal government and large state governments hire actuaries mostly to help manage benefit and insurance programs. There are also more creative positions in emergency management and various planning departments. Most government actuaries start in pensions or benefits, then transition into other types of work. The vast breadth of government work can make government actuaries attractive to a wide variety of companies down the road. Government actuaries are some of the best paid workers in civil service, but salaries are often somewhat lower that what actuaries in other fields make, and many transition into the private sector at some point in their careers. Other actuaries may transition from midlevel corporate work to top-level government work as well with little drop-off in pay.
The corporate world
Companies throughout corporate America often hire actuaries to manage benefits, pension or risk. Few corporations have the resources to hire and train actuaries like the insurance and pension industries do, and don't have the kind of structured programs that these industries feature. They also prefer actuaries with some experience, or at least a graduate degree. The work is similar, but since actuarial science is often not a core part of what most companies do, they prefer to hire more experienced staff. The work can be interesting and challenging, however, as corporate actuaries can be called upon to provide a variety of risk assessments beyond standard insurance, pension and benefit management. A few actuaries have carved out niches for themselves in creating risk profiles for new corporate ventures, new store locations, new product rollouts and the like.
At most firms of any size, insurance or otherwise, there is a strong human resources department that handles hiring. Certainly your contacts can feed HR your information, but unless you've somehow made friends with a society Fellow or top executive, HR will take this under advisement, but otherwise screen you like any other applicant.