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Professional qualifications: what to expect from your actuarial, insurance, pensions or retail banking career

Professional qualifications: what to expect from your actuarial, insurance, pensions or retail banking career

Your financial services graduate job may offer you the chance to qualify with a professional body. Graduates at Lane Clark & Peacock LLP, Aviva and Lloyds Banking Group tell us what it's really like to study alongside full-time work.
It is not uncommon to fail an exam the first time around, but your employer will allow for this.

Professional qualifications in financial services vary as widely as the sector itself. There are opportunities to become professionally qualified in areas such as insurance, actuarial work, pensions, financial planning and retail banking. Some employers in these areas require graduates on their schemes to study towards a relevant professional qualification; others may offer the opportunity to do so.

Do I have to do a professional qualification?

Qualifying with a professional body such as the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) is a prerequisite to becoming an actuary, but professional qualifications are not essential for most other financial services roles. However, they can improve your future career prospects by demonstrating that you have the knowledge and skills to do a good job.

Professional qualifications also help to bring all the graduates on a scheme (who may have studied a variety of degree subjects) up to the same level in terms of their technical knowledge. Devon Edwards Joseph, who has previously completed Lloyds Banking Group’s retail banking graduate scheme, told the UK 300: ‘As part of my graduate programme, I had the option of completing a professional qualification; I did the chartered banker diploma. It gave me a good grounding in financial subjects.’

There are no specific qualifications needed for insurance careers, but studying with a professional body such as the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) may be encouraged as part of a programme of continuing professional development. Bethany Randall completed the CII’s certificate for insurance in her first year of Aviva’s graduate programme. She told TARGETjobs Finance: ‘I wanted to understand a bit more about how insurance worked and the legal implications. It wasn’t a requirement of the programme but Aviva sponsored me to do it.’

How are professional qualifications structured?

Professional qualifications are divided into modules just like many degree courses. Each module carries a certain number of credits and requires a recommended number of study hours. Depending on the qualification, you might be given a choice of the modules you take.

How long it takes to qualify depends on several factors, including how many modules there are and the number of attempts you require to pass each one. For example, it typically takes three to six years to qualify as an associate (the minimum level to become an actuary and use the letters AIA or AFA after your name) with the IFoA.

How will my professional qualification relate to my graduate job?

A certain amount of relevant work experience is often essential to gaining a professional qualification, so graduates normally complete them while in full-time work such as a graduate scheme. Topics covered often link to skills used in the workplace rather than being purely theoretical. Bethany says her qualification ‘was particularly useful when I was selling insurance to customers on my first rotation and it was up to me to explain to my team why we had to do certain things.’

Fern Lai is an analyst in pensions actuarial at Lane Clark & Peacock LLP and is studying to become a fellow of the IFoA (the highest level of qualification it offers). She explains: ‘Many of the mathematical techniques I have studied so far are directly applicable to my day-to-day work. This will only increase as I move into the specialist and applied exams, where the content is increasingly tailored to your industry of choice.’

All professional qualifications involve some element of study in your own time, although there may also be training provided by your employer or an external organisation. Fern says, ‘Study is mostly independent. To supplement this I attend tutorials run by a company called ActEd. These are classes of ten or so students from a variety of firms and allow me to discuss the topics face-to-face and talk through any areas that I am finding challenging.’

What support can I expect from my employer?

Employers of graduates working towards a professional qualification typically cover costs such as exams and study materials and offer paid study leave on top of annual leave allowance. This could be a number of days per year or a set day each week or month.

‘I get a bank of 40 study days per year, which works out at around one day per week after holidays,’ says Fern. ‘On study days, I do not do my day-to-day job but instead study for the exams, either by attending a tutorial or studying independently at home. Everyone has their own personal approach to studying: usually I start to study on some evenings and weekends from around one month before each exam, but for the rest of the year my weekly study day generally gives me the time I need.’

What will the exams be like?

‘The exams vary in size and format,’ explains Fern. ‘Most are three-hour written papers, but some incorporate computer programmes such as Excel. There are exam sittings twice a year. Students will typically take two to three exams per sitting to begin with and one to two for the later exam sittings.’

Check when you start your qualification whether the degree you’ve studied allows you to be exempt from some exams. This will save you repeating learning and ultimately help you get qualified more quickly. You will need to have studied a course that is accredited by the professional body and possibly also to have taken certain modules and obtained certain grades. Check the relevant professional body’s website for a list of the universities and courses that can make you eligible for exemptions.

One major difference between these exams and those you will have taken at school and university is that it is not uncommon to fail an exam the first time around. However, your employer will allow for this. The time taken to complete a qualification is flexible depending on how quickly you pass the exams, so everyone is free to qualify at their own pace. As Fern says, ‘You just need to remember it is a process. Failing a few exams is acceptable and common. Try to appreciate the opportunity to continue learning and improving as part of your job. The qualification is a big commitment, but it is possible to study, work and stay happy!’