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Sorting through Professional Credentials

Factors to consider when pondering designation.

There is no shortage of professional credentials in the retirement plan business. The programs vary in focus, and they use a variety of instructional methods and testing procedures. Fees to earn and maintain designations differ as do continuing education requirements. Some programs are relatively new or have a small number of designees, with conditions that could reduce their market values, at least until more advisors earn the designations. Here are some of the factors you should consider when debating designation.

Broad Skills or Specialized?

The Certified 401(k) Professional designation (C(k)P) from The Retirement Advisor University is an example of a broad curriculum. According to its website, the program progresses through three levels of expertise (fundamentals, advanced and expert), with each level separated into four study areas: (1) technical competence; (2) optimizing plan outcomes; (3) management and business; and (4) sales and marketing.

The Professional Plan Consultant (PPC) program from Fi360, a fiduciary education, training and technology company, also focuses on 401(k) plans. According to Michael Muirhead, AIF, PPC, senior vice president, Learning and Development at Fi360, the program covers: defining plan success; understanding fiduciary roles and responsibilities; managing the investment due diligence process; overseeing the service provider’s due diligence approach; creating effective participant communication strategies; and assisting plan sponsors in dealing with plan administration issues. 

Advisors working with tax-exempt organizations and government entities may consider the Tax-Exempt & Governmental Plan Consultant (TGPC) designation. According to the sponsoring National Tax-Deferred Savings Association’s site, the TGPC program provides a “broad background of expertise with tax-exempt and governmental entities—from the nuts and bolts of 403(b), 457 and other plans used by these entities, to plan exchanges, rollovers and fiduciary issues.”

Self-study or Lecture?

Self-study is convenient, plus it eliminates the hassle and cost of traveling to classes. But successfully completing a self-study program requires discipline, otherwise you find yourself cramming as the test date approaches. Lecture classes offer networking opportunities and the chance to gain from an instructor’s insights. Consider also, the maximum time allowed to complete a program as classroom-based programs might shorten the study time required to sit for an exam.

CE Requirements

Continuing education requirements range from none to 15 or more hours per year. Some programs accept self-study hours while others require classes or some combination of self-study and live instruction. Ideally, hours earned toward one certificate will apply to other designations you hold. If not, you’ll be juggling multiple requirements.


Total fees can range from under $1,000 to over $5,000. Programs that require multiple courses or study units and longer periods to complete typically cost more.


Is a designation worth the time and expense? A designation that requires minimal effort to earn won’t be worth much more than another set of possibly unrecognized initials after your name. But even with higher-quality programs, a certificate’s value depends on the situation. Susan Mangiero, Ph.D. with Fiduciary Leadership LLC in Trumbull, Conn., earned the PPC designation from Fi360. She also earned the Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst (AIFA) designation and believes that “potential and existing clients look at the totality” of her credentials. “I think the value of any one designation will depend on other credentials one has, the kind of work they do, the kind of client base they serve, how well someone explains the value of that credential to his or her clients and so on,” she says.

Kelly C. Amato, JD, AIF believes that earning the Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF) designation helped focus her business practices. “While I am not sure that clients actually attach a value to the credential (they may not even recall what the letters stand for), earning the credential gradually caused me to transform my practice—to organize it around those best practices, rather than being reactive to service demands,” she says.

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Earning a designation is a significant professional accomplishment, but it might not be the last time you hit the books. Amato helped develop the Certified Plan Fiduciary Advisor (CPFA) designation because she believes the expected educational standards for consultants are increasing. “Ideally, practicing advisors would have an AIF and CPFA at a minimum,” she says. “Advanced degrees and more credentials requiring deeper technical skillsets, such as JD, MBA, QKA, CIMA and CFA are in demand because plan consulting and investment oversight intersect in this field—it is necessary to demonstrate acuity in each area of expertise or document the use of competent delegated service providers.”

“The Retirement Plan Professional’s Designation and Certification Guide” compiled by Sharon Pivirotto is an excellent resource for comparing designation programs. SPivirotto published the guide in 2015 so it’s a bit dated, but it’s still a good starting point.

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