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Training Geared for Plan Advisors

Back to school.

If you’re running a small to midsize plan advisory practice, your job likely requires you to wear several hats. Fred Barstein recognized this need for multiple skills in 2009 and by 2010, the organization he founded, The Retirement Advisor University (TRAU), was running its first program. “I recognized that this profession of being a retirement plan advisor was about 20 years old and it really needed its own legitimate designation focused on what retirement plan advisors do,” Barstein explained. “Partially, it’s investments. That’s where most of the focus had been previously but it’s more about plan design, plan optimization, practice management, sales and marketing along with technical competence.”

TRAU collaborated with the UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Education to create a professional education program that combines on-campus classroom training with e-learning, self-study and study groups. It’s a broad curriculum. The May 2019 on-campus program, for instance, included sessions on distinguishing your practice, the Birkman method for personality assessment, small business accounting and the rise of collective investment trusts in DC plans. Online courses cover technical material, regulatory themes and fiduciary training, among other topics. Participants who complete the required courses, meet the experience and business requirements and pass a proctored test can qualify for the C(k)P Certified 401(k) Professional Designation.

The C(k)P program recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. “We have almost 1,000 designees, mostly advisors, and another 200 that are matriculating through,” Barstein said. “It requires three days on campus using the professors and (completion of) 30 online courses where the industry training comes. There’s a minimum requirement of 10 plans, $30 million (in plan assets) and three years’ experience in the defined contribution business.”

Additional Training Programs

TRAU and its affiliate, the Plan Sponsor University (TPSU), also offer other programs for advisors and their staff, plan sponsors and committee members and human resources professionals. Barstein recognized these groups’ need for training and in response created half-day training programs that are hosted at colleges around the country. The sessions are led by C(k)P designees and Barstein says the response has been strong. “We have conducted 500 programs since 2013 and we’re going to be doing 75 this year,” he said. “It’s our largest, fastest growing sector of our company.”

TRAU partnered with SPARK, the industry association for 401(k) record keepers, in September 2019. The organizations are collaborating to offer two designations, the Accredited Retirement Plan Consultant (ARPC) and Accredited Retirement Plan Specialist (ARPS). The programs will be offered online and in optional half-day sessions around the country. “We find even the most sophisticated retirement plan advisors don’t have a formal training program for their staff, whether it’s the communication, education or even operational client services,” Barstein said. “Those two designations that we’ve taken over and partnered with SPARK on fill the next level down on retirement advisor training.”

Is It Worth It?

At a cost of $5,450 plus the time required for on-campus classes and study, the C(k)P program represents a substantial investment. Is it worth the expense and effort?

Eric H. Hansen CIMA, AIF, C(k)P is president of Hartmann Astor Investment Consulting in Suwanee, Georgia. He had two designations that reflected his knowledge of investments and fiduciary responsibilities but wanted a designation to demonstrate his skill with plan design, plan documents and ERISA. “The C(k)P offered a strong curriculum combined with a well-recognized university that I felt would help separate me from the noise,” he said.

Kathleen Branconier, MBA, AIF, C(k)P and principal with Pensionmark Financial Group in Aliso Viejo, California, expressed a similar reason for earning the C(k)P. “My motivation was primarily to have a designation or a credential that I could use on my business card, email signature line, in my biography to demonstrate to my clients and prospects and centers of influence that I’m a specialist in the retirement plan industry.”

Hansen completed the training in 2014; Branconier in 2013. Both expressed satisfaction with the program’s educational content and the opportunity it provided to network with fellow plan professionals. They admit that most plan sponsors are unaware of the designation--given that only 1,000 designees have met the requirements, that’s not surprising. Nonetheless, both derive value by explaining the designation to prospects and clients. “The C(k)P has been a huge differentiator not only for my existing clients as I am able to better serve them but to prospects who have trouble understanding who is a true specialist versus a generalist,” said Hansen.”

Branconier agrees and cites cases in which she is competing with other advisors for a plan’s business. “Maybe they’ve gone through an RFP and they’re evaluating the different advisors,” she said. “Having that designation is helpful because then they’re going to look at the other advisors that I’m competing against and if they don’t have it, that sort of sets me apart from them. It’s a bit of a differentiator, so I think that’s another benefit.”

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