Designations for Retirement Plan Professionals

As an institutional retirement plan consultant, I spend an enormous amount of time educating myself and staying current on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules, Department of Labor (DOL) rules and opinions, case law, capital markets, and investment products; not to mention the vast amount of continuing education I do for my professional designations. The regulations surrounding retirement plans are complex, and each year more updates and regulations are added. To add value to my clients’ committees, I need to stay abreast of the ever-changing regulations, successfully interpret them, and use my understanding to help my clients demonstrate fiduciary prudence and compliance.

As you might imagine, I am a member of several professional organizations, all of which I have chosen because of the quality of the designation, support, and intellectual content provided by the groups. I am most proud of my Certified Pension Consultant (CPC) designation. It is issued by the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) which is conferred by benefits professionals working with institutional retirement plans with a focus on ERISA and fiduciary governance. CPCs work alongside employers to formulate, implement, administer, and maintain qualified retirement plans. One of the many reasons I respect this organization and the CPC designation is that as a candidate you must have at least three years of industry experience to apply. Additionally, a candidate is required to complete the following exams:

  • Retirement Plan Fundamental Modules
  • Defined Contribution Administrative Issues – Basic Concepts (DC-1)
  • Defined Contribution Administrative Issues – Compliance Issues (DC-2)
  • Defined Contribution Administrative Issues – Advanced Topics (DC-3)
  • Administrative Issues of Defined Benefit Plans (DB)
  • Certified Pension Consultant Modules & Written Final Exam

For a working professional, the CPC final exam takes about three years to complete, and the designation requires 40 hours of continuing education every two years. Add that to the three years of experience just to sit for the exams, and you have an educated and informed professional.

The reason I explain this is to contrast the rigor of attaining and maintaining the CPC designation, as well as other quality designations such as the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) conferred by the CFA Institute, with many of the other designations offered in the industry.

The CFA designation is regarded by most to be the key certification for investment professionals, especially in the areas of research and portfolio management. It seems to me that any person with an afternoon free can achieve a designation that purports them to be a retirement plan expert. Please understand there are countless designations issued by organizations ranging from a retirement plan specialist designation issued by the broker-dealers certifying that they have taken an afternoon class on retirement plans, to for-profit organizations handing out designations for an annual fee, to industry leading organizations that require substantial experience, demonstrated knowledge, and rigorous continuing education. Sadly, few people understand what is behind a designation.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) website offers a one-stop shop for anyone who is interested in understanding the qualifications of this alphabet soup of designations and thereby, the true expertise the so-called expert is claiming. For a detailed explanation of virtually all designations, visit:

At this site, you can check how one financial industry credential stacks up against another. Although FINRA doesn’t approve or endorse any professional designation, firm compliance departments use FINRA’s benchmarks as part of the process of approving credentials for use on business cards.

Here’s what FINRA looks for in a credential and what it means:

Issuing Organization
Credentials issued by a for-profit organization are designed, frankly, for the organization to make a profit. Although the courses and exams leading to the credential may be on point, continuing education requirements are likely to be granted only when attending the issuing organization’s conferences and webcasts, or by using their specific materials.

Prerequisites/Experience Required
If the credential doesn’t require any prerequisites or experience, you should dig deeper. Although it’s common to have no prerequisites for an entry-level certificate program, having no previous requirements for a designation can signify a less than a robust credential.

Educational Requirements and Exam Type
These requirements are the core of any meaningful credential. Robust credentials will show a program of study, typically one or more semester-long courses. Courses should have learning objectives, study guides, and/or textbooks and supplemental webcasts or boot camps. The fewer the study options and learning objectives, the less robust the credential.

Continuing Professional Education Requirements (CPE)
CPE requirements are second only to education and exam requirements when deciding on the value of a credential. Be careful of designations that have “none” in this box on the FINRA site. Look for a minimum number of credits hours per year, and preferably 20 credits per year.

Interpreting the so-called professional credentials can be tough for a non-industry professional, and many seasoned industry veterans. The descriptions of the designations are written by highly paid and talented marketing teams, so they will all sound impressive. Before allowing yourself to be impressed, spend a few minutes using the free tools provided by FINRA to evaluate the best professional credential for you and your plans.

Multnomah Group is a registered investment adviser, registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Any information contained herein or on Multnomah Group’s website is provided for educational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies.   Investments involve risk and, unless otherwise stated, are not guaranteed.  Multnomah Group does not provide legal or tax advice.  

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