As with most other professions, individuals in the employee benefits field often seek to obtain various designations to demonstrate their level of knowledge of employee benefits. However, similar to other professional fields, not all employee benefit designations are created equal. As such, professionals must ensure that they choose designations to satisfy their objectives. For the purpose of this article, the term "employee benefit" is used to refer to retirement plans, such as qualified plans, 403(b) arrangements, 457 plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Why Obtain a Designation?
There are many employee benefit professionals who are experts in their fields and don't need to take a course to further educate themselves in these areas. In fact, some of these individuals are knowledgeable enough to teach professional designation courses. Yet, obtaining a designation may be a necessity, depending on a given professional's goals and objectives. For someone who is new to the field, designations are sometimes important, as the path to obtaining the designation usually provides much of the technical knowledge that contributes to expert-level knowledge in a particular field.

The following are some examples of instances when a professional designation can be helpful:

Changing Jobs
An individual who has been working with one employer for an extended period will likely have garnered enough knowledge to be considered an employee benefits expert. However, while the individual's current employer and colleagues may be well aware of this person's expert knowledge, it may not be as apparent to a potential employer who will need some validation of the individual's expert knowledge, beyond what is stated in his or her resume. References and recommendations from former supervisors and employers can be helpful, but a professional designation is often a more acceptable means of assessing an individual's level of expert knowledge.

For instance, an employer seeking to hire someone to perform third-party administrative services may be more likely to hire someone with the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) Qualified Pension Administrator (QPA) designation, than someone with the Institute of Certified Bankers (ICB) Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP) as the QPA provides more in-depth courses on the practical aspects of third-party administration. On the other hand, a firm that provides support for general IRA topics may find the CISP designation more suitable for its business needs.

Seeking a Promotion
When seeking professional advancement, obtaining a professional designation may help to set an individual apart from and above the competition, especially when the other individuals who would be likely contenders for the promotion have similar educational backgrounds and experience. The professional designation not only shows dedication to improving the professional self, but it also helps to confirm that the individual is knowledgeable in the area in which the designation was obtained and is able to handle high-level related issues.

Completing the courses necessary to obtain a professional designation is one of the best ways to learn about the rules and regulations that govern employee benefit plans. Most courses cover the fundamental rules and regulations governing the specific areas, and gradually take the designee through more complex material - usually leading to a better-than-average understanding of the subject matter.

Choosing a Designation Provider
It is becoming increasingly common for organizations affiliated with providing retirement education and information to offer their own designations. And, while many of these involve completing relevant course material and examinations, they may not provide as much influence with employers and clients as those offered by the more well-known educational organizations.

The following are some designations offered by reputable, well-established organizations. The details, including costs and continuing educational requirements are available by clicking on the hyperlinks:

Organization Certificates or Professional Designations
American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries (ASPPA)
National Institute of Pension Administrators (NIPA)
International Foundation for Retirement Education (InFRE)
Institute of Certified Bankers (ICB)
International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP)
College for Financial Planning

Some of these organizations go beyond providing education, which helps to enhance their reputations. For instance, ASPPA is often involved with influencing legislative and regulatory developments in the employee benefits field.

Choosing a Designation
In addition to ensuring the organization has a good reputation, professionals should ensure that the designation meets certain basic requirements.

If the professional's objective is to obtain a designation that provides and/or demonstrate expertise in IRAs, the CISP may be the most suitable. For more a more advanced course, with material that provides education on investment and retirement planning strategies, the CRC may be a better choice. For courses that focus on the practical aspects of qualified plan administration, relevant courses include the CPC, QPA and the APA. The CEBS includes content relating to retirement plans, as well as health and human resources. Before deciding on a designation, the course outline and description should be reviewed to ensure it covers the areas that the designee wants to have covered.

Continuing Education Requirements
Designations with continuing education (CE) requirements are usually more valuable than those with no CE requirements. Failure to satisfy CE requirements usually results in loss of the professional designation. As such, if the designation requires CE, interested parties will know that the designee not only successfully completed the course and examinations, but that the relevant professional knowledge is kept current by meeting CE requirements.

The costs for completing the courses, taking the exams and maintaining CE requirements vary among designations. For those courses with CE requirements, there is usually an annual fee, plus the cost incurred for the CE courses themselves. Some employers will pay all related expenses, but individual designees are often required to bear the costs themselves. While it may look good on a resume to have multiple designations, if cost is an issue it may be practical to choose one or two to satisfy the designee's objectives.

Fringe Benefits
Organizations that provide professional designations in the employee benefits field often provide additional benefits for their designees. These include free newsletters, free magazines, discounts for conference fees and memberships to organizations with which they have such relationships. The benefits provided by each organization should be evaluated in order to determine their value and importance to the designee.

Don't Confuse Affiliation with Professional Designation
Some organizations offer affiliations to individuals who have not completed the requisites to receive a professional designation, but have an interest in the field and meet certain predefined requirements. For instance, ASPPA offers the Associated Professional Members (APM) membership to pension professionals holding degrees in law, accounting, actuarial science, financial science, insurance, or related disciplines, if they have a minimum of three years experience in pension-related employment.

The Bottom Line
A professional designation is like a college degree in some ways. Having one does not necessarily mean that the designee has current working knowledge of the area in which the designation was given. It simply means that the individual was able to study for, and pass, the exams and likely attended required classes or covered course material. However, professional designations can make a difference in getting hired for a job or winning business from a potential client. For prospective employers and clients who are not familiar with the designee's experience and are unable to assess his or her level of expertise, a professional designation - especially one with CE requirements - can provide that extra detail needed to make the designee's case.

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