As competition for the best finance jobs heats up, earning a certification can be a way to stand out from the pack.
Interest is up in an alphabet soup of certifications -- CFA, CFP, CQF and others. This despite cuts by companies in internal learning-and-development budgets this year. Individuals seeking to ramp up resumes are paying big bucks for key certifications on their own, according to test-prep companies.
"It's become extremely competitive, and it raises the bar for everybody," said Stanley Lee, a board member at the CFA Institute who is a senior vice president at asset management firm Neuberger Berman in New York. "The resumes that come across the desk have changed dramatically, so you really have to do something to increase [your chances]."
With corporate dollars for certification classes tougher to find, more than 60% of those who sign up for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) are now self-funded, said Andrew Temte, chief executive officer, Kaplan Professional. In past years, less than 40% of course takers paid for it themselves -- their employers picked up the tab. "The speed at which those numbers flip-flopped was incredibly dramatic and very telling of the severity of the market downturn," said Temte.
With the number of participants for the June CFA exam up 24% over 2008, many see the CFA as an essential resume-building tool. Robert Johnson, a senior managing director at the CFA Institute, said it's also becoming choice for those looking for work internationally.
"On a recent trip to the Middle East, an employer told me that they expected employees for certain roles to either have passed Level I before joining or to have passed within a year of employment," Johnson said.
Other job seekers looking to get a jump on growing demand are pursuing designations such as the Certified Financial Planner (CFP). "As investors get older and as baby boomers get closer to retirement, many of them are seeking guidance from any number of sources, including financial planners," said Pat Fitzgerald, the chief operating officer at Acadient, an e-learning certification company, which runs the Boston Institute of Finance.
Enrollment for the CFP rose by 28% in the past year, Fitzgerald said, and costs haven't put off participants. To manage, students enroll in only a few courses all at once, instead of taking the entire six courses Acadient offers for the CFP, he said.
Some of the designations are well-suited for career changers. A six-month program for the Certificate in Quantitative Finance (CQF) designation from 7city gives participants a chance to dig into areas of risk management and derivatives, both hot hiring areas. In recent years, 60% of participants have used it as a way to enter finance when coming from a nonfinancial background, said Al Young, U.S. manager for 7city. This year, CQF enrollment numbers are up almost 30% and two-thirds of participants are self-sponsored.
Ram Meenakshisundaram, a development manager for the financial and risk solutions group at New York-based OpenLink Financial, completed his CQF in June. He said the course of study gave him a chance to home in on a specific area of finance and stay relevant in the industry. "During my M.B.A., we never narrowed down into why we behaved that way," he said about learning the technical aspects of risk management.
Not all companies have cut funding for learning and development. Meenakshisundaram said his company picked up half of his $18,000 tab, after he persuaded managers that the course work would help him add depth to his role.
At Neuberger Berman, CFA candidates are reimbursed for exams they pass and for certification courses on a case-by-case basis, said Helen Preston, an HR generalist at the firm.
The global training company 7city hasn't seen a decline in corporations funding study for the CFA designation on a world-wide basis. "It's become much more focused and much more targeted," says Ken Johnson, general manager for the Americas at 7city. "I'm finding a bit of a dichotomous effect. Organizations, rather than sending everyone through basic training, now focus on real 'value add' where it might not exist."
-- To find a certification that fits your needs, check with your human-resources department about tuition-reimbursement policies. Some companies reimburse for some certifications but not others.
-- If your company doesn't offer support for the credential that you're interested in, consider an online option. Web-based programs cost less, and may be more time efficient, than attending in-person classes.
-- Not all certifications are created equal. Note which programs are board certified. With dozens of choices, it's important to understand which may be a sound investment.
-- Certifications cost several thousand dollars, so understand how the offering will give you a career boost. Think about long-term goals -- including the return on investment -- before committing your money and time.
A Brief Guide to Prep Courses
If you're considering taking outside courses to help you with the exams, here are a few places to look into:
-- Acadient.com: The online learning company partners with universities to provide training for a variety of financial certifications.
-- KFeducation.com: Kaplan Financial Education offers securities licensing and CFA options.
-- 7city.com: This global financial-services training company offers leadership courses, as well as courses for continual professional development.
-- Strayer.edu: The online university provides accounting-related graduate certificates.
-- Icfs.com: The Institute of Business and Finance offers designations like the Certified Fund Specialist (CFS) and Certified Annuity Specialist (CAS).
-- Theamericancollege.edu: The American College offers the Chartered Financial Consultant (CFC) designation among others.
-- Alina Dizik
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