With only three years of experience in retirement planning so far, Rachel Fieweger makes up for her lack of years at the craft with deep levels of drive and commitment.

Indeed, her LinkedIn profile perhaps says it best: “As an associate financial planner with RTD Financial Advisors, Inc. [in Philadelphia], I am involved in all aspects of the financial planning process, from developing goals and recommendations, to implementing and monitoring financial plans. I am passionate about providing my clients with comprehensive, unbiased advice, and seek to help them fulfill their dreams by merging money and values through Financial Life Planning.”

Helping others to realize their dreams is certainly no easy matter. It requires financial smarts, the right credentials, and no small measure of passion.

In Fieweger’s case, that passion revealed itself early. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Virginia Tech in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science degree in finance. While still a student, she pursued the CFP Board Registered Financial Planning Program, and became a Certified Financial Planner professional.

While at Virginia Tech, Fieweger also came to the attention of the Fairman Group Family Office in Berwyn, PA. She initially worked with the group as a wealth management intern, and armed with her new certification, was later hired back as an investment advisory associate, where she was responsible for maintaining multiple client relationships.

Fieweger has no doubts about what professional credentials or designations a professional retirement advisor should seek out to be successful.

“I think the CFP is a required designation for anyone seeking to advise others on their retirement plan,” Fieweger said. Beyond that, other areas of study or professional designations would depend on what the planner chooses to specialize in.

For example, “The topics would depend on the client base,” Fieweger said. “If they are working with federal employees, knowledge of the TSP plan and FERS are a must. If they are working with executives, then knowledge of deferred stock and employee options is critical.”

Why Retirement Planners Get Certified

There are a number of reasons why a retirement planner should seek out designations in the field:

• They are starting out and must demonstrate a basic mastery.

• They are looking to change jobs and need to convince an employer of their skill level.

• They are seeking a promotion and want to illustrate progress they have made in expanding their expertise.

Some designations or certifications confirm that the planner has covered broad financial and retirement-related material, and others are more specific to an area of expertise.

“Certainly the CFP is the gold standard—it is widely respected and known,” said Kristen MacKenzie, associate professor at the College for Financial Planning. “Average people out there are familiar with that designation. Another would be the CRPC – the Certified Retirement Planning Counselor. We have a number of corporate clients that send their employees to that program.”

The College for Financial Planning has been around since 1972, “and we consider ourselves to be the premier provider of professional education for people seeking designations and their CFP certification,” MacKenzie said. “We have a number of designations in financial planning ranging from basic introductory level up to masters courses, and we also do a lot of CFP prep.”

Specific retirement designations could include training “not just in investments, but talk about healthcare, Social Security, estate planning, incapacity, that sort of thing,” MacKenzie said.

“Personally, I teach a master’s level retirement planning class and I really try to talk a lot about, instead of just spinning facts, the application of strategies and their fiduciary role as a CFP to act in the best interest of the client. We talk a lot about behavioral finance, about getting to the bottom of what people’s goals are, about getting people to think about their longevity, and strategize from there.”

Beyond the need to impress a boss or potential new employer, MacKenzie says the most important value of obtaining designations or certifications is to simply further one’s own education and to stay current in the field.

“Continuing to educate yourself, and maintaining some level of involvement with what is going on I think is really important,” MacKenzie said.

As to particular topics that are especially important, “Social Security is really a big one,” MacKenzie said. “Before I started this position, I was a planner at a firm where we did planning for high net worth clients, and even then, that segment of the market did not have a good understanding of how Social Security works. They were concerned about its future and they didn’t know where to turn for advice. People in the Social Security administration can’t give advice – they just give facts. Planners can really differentiate themselves if they can get a good handle on how that system works.”

Designations And Certifications To Choose From

So just what professional designations or certifications should the retirement planner target? Here is a list of some of the most important ones, including the organization that provides them:

  • The American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries (ASPPA) offers: Fellow, Society of Pension Actuaries; Certified Pension Consultant (CPC); Qualified 401(k) Administrator (QKA); Qualified Pension Administrator (QPA); Qualified Plan Financial Consultant (QPFC); and Retirement Plan Fundamentals Certificate.
  • The College for Financial Planning offers: Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor; and Chartered Retirement Plans Specialist (CRPS).
  • The Institute of Certified Bankers (ICB) offers: Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP); and Certified Retirement Services Professional (CRSP).
  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) offers: Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS).
  • The International Foundation for Retirement Education (InFRE) offers: Certified Retirement Administrator (CRA); and Certified Retirement Counselor (CRC).
  • The National Institute of Pension Administrators (NIPA) offers: Accredited Pension Administrator (APA) Program; and Accredited Pension Representative (APR) Program.

The Value of Professional Certification

Whichever certifications or designations a retirement planner does pursue, the most important thing is that they do in fact receive professional certification, according to Ed Gjertsen, president of the Financial Planning Association.

With nearly 24,000 members, the Financial Planning Association is recognized as one of the most important professional organizations for certified financial planners. Gjertsen said it is important for retirement planners to distinguish themselves from investment advisors.

“If we’re talking about financial planning, which is different from investment advice, it’s much more comprehensive. I think it’s really important to rally around the credential for the profession, and definitely for the benefit of the public so they can understand who they are engaging with,” Gjertsen said.

Public protection is in fact a large part of why retirement planning credentials are so important, Gjertsen believes. Many individuals can call themselves financial advisors or retirement planners, but lack the professional training and certification that go along with that.

“Consumers are worried,” Gjertsen said. “They’re worried about their financial future, and they put their lives in the hands of financial advisors, and they say, ‘hey, make sure you’re looking after my best interest.’ They want to make sure that the professional across the table is a fiduciary, but I think we’ve seen on the news that that trusting relationship can go awry. That further causes consternation amongst the public.”

In response, Gjertsen is a firm believer in more regulation for retirement planners.

“We’re part of the group called the Financial Planning Coalition, and that group consists of the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and the CFP Board, who has the credential standard for the Certified Financial Planner designation,” Gjertsen said.

“We have this group that goes to Congress, and we talk to them very simply on three key points,” Gjertsen said:

  • “One is protecting consumers by ensuring that the financial planning services are delivered to the public with fiduciary accountability and transparency. We want to make sure that the professional has the client’s interests first and foremost.”
  • “Increasing investment protection I think is very important. One of those elements can be done through increases in investment advisor examinations. You might be well aware that the FPC is only able to examine an advisor on average once every 10 years. With that, we’re probably one of the only groups that say ‘we want to be more regulated, and by the way, we’re willing to pay for it’. So let’s try to move this forward. I think will help as well in protecting the public.”
  • “The third thing is there are regulatory gaps that financial planners face every day that leave consumers unprotected. The issue of compensation – how I get compensated – whether it’s a commission or a fee defines my role with the consumer, and we think that is a little confusing for the consumer. That potentially causes harm to the consumer.”

Despite those concerns, Gjertsen said there is some good news in all of this. For one thing, retirement planning and retirement preparedness are now getting serious attention from lawmakers.

“What’s exciting from our standpoint, and I’ve been around the Financial Planning Association for quite some time, is our advocacy efforts,” Gjertsen said. “We had our Inaugural Day advocacy [on Capitol Hill] last year and we have another one planned in 2015 around June 23-24.

“More importantly, we’re going to be in over 15 capitals between now and June, so members will really be taking the initiate to really go out and engage with our elected officials,” Gjertsen said. “It’s an education process, and we’re really taking it upon ourselves as a profession to educate those elected officials on protecting their constituents. I think that is really resonating and starting to take hold. We’re really seeing elected officials starting to pay attention, and to engage in more dialogue.”