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

Why Get 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 still be necessary, depending on their goals and objectives. For someone who is new to the field, designations can be important, as the path to obtaining the designation usually provides much of the technical knowledge that's needed to be an expert in their field. Here are some examples of cases where a professional designation can help:

Looking to Change Jobs

Someone who's been working with one employer for an extended period likely would 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 expertise, it may not be as apparent to a potential employer, who might need to validate their expertise beyond what is stated in their resume. Although recommendations from former supervisors and employers can help, a professional designation is often a more acceptable means of assessing an individual's level of knowledge.

For instance, an employer seeking to hire someone to perform third-party administrative services may be more apt to hire someone with the American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries (ASPA) or the Qualified Pension Administrator (QPA) designation, than someone with the American Bankers Association (ABA) or Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP), as the QPA provides more in-depth courses about 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 the competition, especially when other qualified individuals have similar education and experience. The professional designation not only shows dedication to improving oneself professionally, but it also helps to confirm that the individual is an expert in their field can handle critical related issues.

Continuing Education (CE)

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 benefits plans. Most courses cover a specific area's fundamental rules and regulations and guide the student through complex material that usually leads to a better-than-average understanding of the subject matter.

Choosing a Designation Provider

It is becoming increasingly common for organizations that provide 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 better-known educational organizations.

The table below cites some designations offered by reputable, well-established organizations. You may view the details, including costs and continuing education (CE) requirements by clicking on the hyperlinks.

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 choosing an educational institution with a good reputation, professionals should ensure that the designation meets certain basic requirements.

Objective

If the professional's objective is to obtain a designation that provides and/or demonstrated expertise in IRAs, the CISP may be the most suitable. For 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, prospective students should review the course outline and description to make sure that it covers the desired areas.

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.

Costs

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. Though it may look good on a resume to have multiple designations if money 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 offer other for their designees, too. These can include free newsletters, free magazines, discounts for conference fees, and memberships to other professional organizations with which they have relationships. Prospective designees should evaluate the benefits provided by each organization to determine their value and relative importance.

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 a 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.