How to develop a career in employee benefits

HR professionals have an enviable choice of training and development resources with which to develop their careers, and university degree courses are a prime example.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Provision of employee benefits qualifications and training is patchy.
  • On-the-job training is a common approach to career development for many benefits professionals.
  • Social media sites and online blogs can help inform benefits professionals’ thinking.

Undergraduate courses range from Kingston University’s human resource management BA (Hons), which covers strategic management, employee relations and organisational learning, to Henley Business School’s postgraduate MSc in international human resource management, which covers international business, training and development, recruitment and selection, and performance management.

By comparison, employee benefits-focused degrees are almost non-existent.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is in negotiations with Middlesex University about some form of accreditation for its performance and reward qualifications, but there remains a gaping hole in benefits-related qualifications until this development happens.

Migration of benefits responsibility

Mark Childs, managing director, Total Reward Group, says: “There has been a migration, or a transfer, of benefits responsibility away from pensions procurement and fleet managers [for example] into the hands of HR, and they are very often now the only people internally who are doing those things. A lot of their activity is acting as an intermediary between the organisation and third-party providers.”

But this evolution of the benefits professional’s role has not removed the need for benefits expertise, Childs adds. “The employees who have ended up picking up benefits responsibility in-house really have no heritage of benefits management, so there is a screaming need for training,” he says.

“A lot of HR people have become buyers of products without necessarily being independent specifiers of what they require, or having the capacity to differentiate [between products] and make an informed judgement.”

However, Childs believes benefits professionals no longer need the technical depth they used to when the asset value of their organisation’s pension fund might have been greater than the business’s market capitalisation and, therefore, the impact on scheme funding was huge.

Instead, he says benefits professionals need a good understanding of employee benefits plan designs, knowledge of finance and insurance, a grasp of regulatory frameworks and good market knowledge, including an understanding of providers’ products and services and their availability.

“A lot of the specification of benefits is quite provider-led, so employers decided they would get into flex, for example, once providers rocked up with web-based platforms,” Childs says.

“[Benefits professionals] need to know who is out there and what they are offering and what the comparative features and benefits of those provider offerings are, so that they are not naïve when making their procurement decisions.”

University degree courses are not the only way in which benefits professionals can develop their careers, of course.

Employee Benefits Academy

For example, the Employee Benefits Academy runs courses for reward analysts and benefits managers on a range of topics including compensation and benefits, which can be taken on one day or as part of a comprehensive five-day programme.

The academy, launched in October 2012 as a joint venture between Employee Benefits magazine and Total Reward Academy, also offers bespoke in-house training courses.

Trade bodies, such as the Pensions Management Institute (PMI), and the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP), also offer a range of qualifications. IFS Proshare runs training courses, workshops and seminars for people involved in employee share ownership.

WorldatWork, the US-headquartered human resources association, meanwhile, offers qualifications including its certified benefits professional qualification, which offers courses in reward management, strategic communication and retirement plans, as well as regulatory environments for benefits plans and perks outsourcing.

Benefits trade shows, where providers showcase their products and services, can also help benefits professionals to develop their industry knowledge, as can business-to-business publications, including Employee Benefits, and trade organisations such as the CIPD.

Providers also run their own training sessions to help benefits professionals keep up to date with industry issues.

For example, incentives and rewards provider Edenred runs a webinar programme that tackles the challenges staff may face in relation to childcare, such as the transition to a new childcare voucher system in 2015, as well as health and wellbeing and personal finance management.

Andy Philpott, sales and marketing director at Edenred, says: “At a time when HR and benefits professionals are faced with a number of challenges in attracting and retaining the right talent for their organisations, it is critical they have the insight that can help form the right response.”

Law firms and accountancy groups also run training sessions and publish guidance documents about industry changes. In August, for example, accountants Smith and Williamson published a briefing on the challenges involved in pension default lifestyle options, entitled Current markets highlight problem of default ‘lifestyle’ option for pension investors.

On-the-job training

However, on-the-job training remains the most accessible form of education for many benefits professionals, whose employers often lack the inclination, time or, where required, budget to agree to such external training.

Benefits professionals therefore need to be self-motivated to ensure they receive the training they need.

Liz Lane, director, reward and global mobility at recruitment firm Frazer Jones, says: “The onus is on candidates to be resourceful and secure the internal training they need. An employer generally would be quite happy for [an employee] to sit tight in the role they are currently doing because it’s less hassle for them.

“[Professionals] should put their hands up for other projects in their team, because if they are doing a pure compensation role and want to gain benefits knowledge, it can be really difficult to get that externally.”

Short secondments on internal projects can be one way for benefits professionals to overcome this challenge and develop their career, Lane adds. “They should be super eager and get the attention of [a colleague] on the benefits side and gain that experience,” she says.

“The candidates that have succeeded most in their careers have first gained opportunities internally to fill gaps in their CV, and then they’ve gone out to the market and found it much easier to secure a role.”

But Charles Cotton, rewards adviser at the CIPD, warns of the possible consequences of staff relying on internal training to develop their career. “The problem is that if they learn on the job, all they are going to know about is their own organisation,” he says. “They may be finding the training that they’re getting at their organisation very useful, but they aren’t getting exposure to what’s going on in organisations in other sectors.”

The issue is further exacerbated by the tendency for employees to stay in their roles longer because of fears about job security following the economic downturn, when many employers made mass redundancies.

External candidates

Some employers that recognise the dangers of recruiting long-serving internal employees to new benefits positions are consequently recruiting staff from other sectors in the hope of generating fresh, innovative ideas for their business.

Stephen Menko, director at recruitment organisation Ortus, says: “Generation Y is coming in and its focus is on work-life balance and benefits like gym membership that are helping with that balance, and not just the standard healthcare and pension. So it is now about [benefits] packages that are more in line with the modern world.”

Employers’ desire to create a more positive organisational culture, particularly in the banking sector following the economic downturn and several banking scandals, is also driving employers to change their approach to recruiting benefits staff.

A number of employers are also looking for external candidates with financial nous, says Nick Croucher, managing consultant at Ortus. “There is a huge drive in terms of improving analytics and management information, which is a hole in our industry at the moment,” he says. “Candidates are coming from economics, and statistical and analytical backgrounds.”

Frazer Jones’ Lane says employees with knowledge of flexible benefits and pensions auto-enrolment are also in great demand.

“I am seeing a lot of employers that really value European benefits experience,” she says. For example, one employer is seeking a benefits professional with the experience and expertise to launch benefits programmes in new regions across the continent.

Lane says employers rarely request a formal benefits-related qualification, so on-the-job training is likely to be, at least while employers’ training budgets remain tight, the career development method of choice for many benefits professionals. 

The Employee Benefits Academy

The Employee Benefits Academy is a joint venture between Employee Benefits magazine and Total Reward Academy.

The academy runs courses on a range of topics for reward and benefits professionals, as well as offering bespoke training courses.

For more information and to book a place.

Case study: Spencer Roach, benefits manager (retirement) Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco Systems

Spencer Roach, Benefits Manager (retirement), Cisco Systems

Spencer Roach, benefits manager (retirement) Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia at Cisco Systems, attends quarterly workshops with his organisation’s regional benefits consultants, including Towers Watson, to keep up to speed with industry developments and benefits changes.

“We review upcoming legislative changes across the region and identify areas for action,” he says.

Roach’s membership of a working group organised by Towers Watson is also useful. “It typically meets twice a year and includes compensation and benefits managers from the hi-tech sector in London and Thames Valley,” he says.

“Most recently, the meeting was held at Cisco, where we talked about our employee benefits platform, followed by an open forum to discuss any questions on delegates’ minds and, most importantly, lunch.”

Roach is also a member of, an online community of pension managers that enables like-minded pensions professionals to share ideas, experiences and best practice.

He says Employee Benefits is an invaluable industry title that helps inform his benefits knowledge, particularly its events, such as Employee Benefits Connect, at which he has presented.

But Roach says his best training session to date was a presentation called The UK economy: How long, how deep?, delivered by Dennis Turner, former chief economist at HSBC.

“It was a really insightful and down-to-earth talk on how the UK got to where it did and what the government can do about it,” he says.

Most of Roach’s training is free of charge, which he says is necessitated by the current economic climate. “That way, my employer only needs to pay travel expenses, but my knowledge remains current,” he says.

His recommended reading for benefits professionals involved or interested in investment includes Fooled by randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published by Penguin in 2007.

“It’s a really great read about how big a role chance plays in successful investments, and how often success is attributed to skill,” he says.

Case study: Neil Morrison, HR director, Random House

Neil Morrison, HR Director, Random House

Neil Morrison, HR director at Random House, uses industry events to develop his career and keep informed about industry changes. These include conferences run by the Corporate Research Forum, of which Random House is a member.

“They are fantastic, both in terms of research and thinking, and also in terms of networking and sharing ideas,” he says.

Morrison also believes social media platforms and online blogs are great tools for HR and benefits professionals to develop their knowledge.

He is a big fan of online blogs by industry professionals.

“It’s about being mindful of industry issues,” he says. “A lot of the insight helps professionals form their own opinions.

“It’s not about just picking ideas up and dropping them in [to my own organisation], but providing a different perspective on, for example, employment relations that may make me think about something I’m doing, or something around a particular incentivisation scheme that might make me question, in my organisation, what would be right for me.”

Morrison favours US thinkers, such as Laurie Ruettimann, HR professional and speaker, and editor of online blog “She really writes challenging things,” he says.

“More people make a career out of HR and benefits in the US and, therefore, they feel more confident to challenge the status quo. A lot of the British scene is quite safe, and where [professionals] try not to be safe, it’s like dads dancing at a party: it’s all a bit samey.”

Morrison says employers can help to evolve the current status quo in the UK HR and benefits industry by encouraging their staff to innovate.

But he also thinks employees need to take responsibility for their own career development, and ensure they continuously read a wide range of industry literature.

“New benefits recruits should seek a range of sources of industry thinking, both established and independent,” he says. “Independent voices can be as informative as established media.

“It’s important to understand the macro-economic climate via the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Confederation of British Industry, but it’s also interesting to pick up individual voices via blogs, articles or networking.”