Forging a career in benefits management

A career in benefits may not just rest with qualifications; extras like project management experience also help, says Jamin Robertson

Article in full

A quick review of 30 advertised vacancies for senior compensation and benefits managers reveals an average basic pay offer of £48,750, with a few around the £80,000 mark. Not a bad wedge considering the scope for determining the rest of the reward package.

For those considering a career in benefits management, the first challenge is perhaps what to call yourself. Amid an array of differing titles, the role of compensation and benefits manager is one that crops up regularly, while many smaller companies attach a more generic title.

But industry-specific training for would-be benefits managers is more clear-cut. Qualifications administered by people management and development body the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) are training stripes that are mentioned time and again by employers. The CIPD options range from one-day modules through to a comprehensive professional development scheme, incorporating a new Advanced Certificate in Reward Management.

These qualifications are popular with people already working in HR and looking to bone up on specific skills, and also as a practical industry-specific option for graduates of human resources or general disciplines.

Research shows reward management skills are in hot demand. The CIPD’s annual survey: Reward Management 2005 reveals 33% of organisations now employ a reward function or department while 41% of all those surveyed reported an expansion in reward practitioner numbers over the last 12 months.

Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the CIPD, believes issues such as occupational pensions, executive pay, and pay restructuring form that demand for specialist knowledge. “[The course] is useful for people who don’t have the technical expertise about UK-orientated benefits. We went out and talked to people in business and found what their requirements were. [A lot of] students are sponsored by their organisations, which are creating reward functions for people working in HR and skilling them up,” he says.

The reason more organisations are creating a specific reward post is the increased complexity of the job. Mark Childs, an architect of the CIPD’s reward management course and director of Total Reward Solutions describes the changing nature of the position.

“Many senior reward practitioners have accidentally gone into the comp and bens space, have been typecast and stayed there. Most of us learned the trade on the job, and by spending time at conferences and seminars. There’s been no professional route to get into the discipline. Over the last 10-to-15 years reward has developed as a body of knowledge, with technology, and the onerous requirements of corporate governance [such as] the Combined Code, the expansion of share schemes, growth of flex, pensions, and the war for talent. This probably wasn’t required 20 years ago.” But demand is now high. “We’ve had to increase the number of courses to meet the demand,” says Childs. Some 60 people enrolled for the first intake which commenced in March this year.

Childs says the course was inspired by the trade body for reward professionals established in the United States. There, the organisation World at Work (formerly the American Compensation Association) regulates reward with a benchmark qualification. “If you walk into an office in the US, every compensation manager will have a CCP (Chartered compensation practitioner certificate) awarded by the World at Work,” says Childs. The CIPD has followed that lead aiming to establish its own mark of competence for reward professionals in the UK. While graduates are among the target group of the organisation, Childs says the typical student among the course’s first intake is a business person from an HR background.

Similarly, the Institute for Pensions and Payroll Management (IPPM) runs a number of practical short courses in addition to its Continuing Professional Development programme for benefits managers with responsibility for technical pension benefits and wider payroll responsibilities. Such courses include a one-day seminar on expenses and benefits, while those interested in a longer course of study can opt for qualifications such as the Foundation in General Pensions Administration.

Aside from formal training as a foothold onto the benefits ladder, there has long been a rotating door between careers in benefits consultancies and benefits management. It is said in the industry that benefits consultants offer the same thing to many different companies, while benefits managers offer different things to the same company. It is something of a natural progression, then, for benefits managers to accept a role with a consultancy after finding an aptitude for one particular area of benefits administration and therefore realising the potential of using that proficiency to profitable effect for a consultancy. That trend, however does work both ways. International mobile phone giant Sony Ericsson, for example, hires many of its compensation and benefits managers from consultancies.

Aside from specialist training, many benefits managers who have been around for a while entered the career through the side door and learn the old fashioned way, on the job. Neil McCawley, pay and benefits manager at convenience store chain One Stop, joined the Tesco-owned company two years ago from Barclays. Previously, he’d come through Barclays’ HR door from a project management role at the bank. The One Stop role appealed for that experience, and McCawley made the transition. “My project management experience got me the role rather than having an HR qualification. These days, I know that if you want to get into [benefits] you probably need to be studying through the CIPD, but it depends. If you’ve been working for 15-to-20 years, having that qualification may not be so necessary if you’re able to prove that you’ve done all the things they’re looking for,” says McCawley.

With all that experience, he is well-placed to offer tips for young players, and it seems climbing the ladder requires exposing your ideas to the people that matter. “Just over a year ago, I started to present to [One Stop’s directors] on things like pay increases, and [the introduction] of voluntary benefits. That’s definitely helped. [If there’s] anything to do with pay and benefits, they talk directly to me, and that builds up [my] profile within the business,” he says.

GSK’s Modha observes that when you’re dealing with people your goals should in most cases align with theirs: “[You need] a lot of skills in people management as [you are] accountable to different areas of the business,” she says. A good return on investment and improved recruitment and retention illustrate a job well done. And that comes down to sharp consultation.

“It’s about bouncing ideas off [staff], then coming back and tailoring your [solution],” she says. But CIPD research indicates a far-reaching challenge to the new breed of benefits professionals. While some 30% of employers claim to have adopted an all-encompassing total reward approach to managing and communicating rewards, all concluded front-line managers lack the skills to implement the strategy. That is, perhaps, one of the first tasks on the checklist for the new breed of professional benefits managers.

Benefits qualifications

The Pensions Management Institute Diploma in International Employee Benefits and Associateship of the Pensions Management Institute. For more information call 020 7392 7400

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development offers a number of short courses in addition to the Advanced Certificate in Reward Management. For more information call 020 8612 6202 or email training.hotline@cipd.co.uk

The Institute of Payroll and Pensions Management ( offers a number of short courses in addition to certificate courses and a Continued Professional Development programme. For more information visit www.ippm.org