How to forge a career in benefits

What does it take to land a job in benefits? Industry experts give their tips to progress in the sector, and what rewards to expect

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  • Benefits professionals are increasingly important as organisations look for innovative ways to keep staff engaged.
  • A career in benefits is likely to involve exposure to reward.
  • Qualifications can be useful for career development, but are not essential.

In the current economic climate, the role of benefits professional has become more important than ever as organisations look for innovative ways to keep staff engaged without having to commit to salary rises.

Jane Vivier, former head of reward at Cancer Research UK and now an independent consultant, says a benefits career is likely to appeal to people who like to make a tangible difference. “If you put in a benefits programme, you will see the results immediately, whether in terms of engagement or anecdotally, in terms of people just being happy,” she says.

Anyone considering a career in benefits will need to be able to combine creativity with a strong analytical background, and have good communication skills, Vivier adds. “You may have to convince the managing director they want to do something and then convince every single member of staff that they want to do what you are suggesting.”

Sylvia Doyle, a director at Reward First, stresses the importance of having a strategic view of what a business is trying to achieve. “Successful benefits professionals will really get under the skin of the big issues,” she says. “It might be that they have a flexible benefits scheme with annual choices in January or April, so what can they do on communications?”

Of course, the job varies according to the size of an organisation and its objectives. Liz Lane, associate director at recruitment firm Frazer Jones, says most roles she deals with involve a mix of compensation and benefits. “We do get pure benefits roles, but they are not as frequent,” she says. “Some of the bigger organisations tend to split their teams.”

Most roles are based in head offices, which tend to be in London and the South-East, she says. Some also have a degree of exposure to international operations.

Salaries for most pure benefits roles start at £35,000 to £40,000 and managers’ pay ranges from £50,000 to £70,000, says Lane. But a head of benefits at a big international firm could receive in the region of £120,000 a year.

A survey by Croner Reward, HR rewards, published in October 2011, showed that senior managers working in compensation and benefits receive 2.6% more than their peers in other HR functions.

Graph
Source: Croner Reward

The breadth of a role can affect which areas individuals get involved in, says Tara Wallace, manager of Morgan McKinley’s HR, secretarial and support teams in London. “Most large companies will have a flexible benefits package, so you may only get involved in certain parts,” she says. “If it is a smaller company, it may want to redesign its entire benefits package, so there is a project for you.”

Confidential role

Most people move into benefits from an HR generalist or payroll administration role where they have already had some exposure to benefits, says Frazer Jones’ Lane. “The nature of reward and benefits makes it a confidential role with a lot of responsibility, so organisations tend to favour more experienced candidates.” Wallace says a finance background can also be useful, and some senior analytical reward roles will require this skill.

To break into the benefits world, people need to get as much experience as they can, says Vivier. “With their current employer, they should try to get involved in reward projects. There is a wealth of information out there, in books, publications, seminars or events. But the one thing that served me well in my early career was unrelenting enthusiasm.”

Undergoing training, such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s advanced award in reward management or the WorldatWork global remuneration qualification, can also improve understanding of reward.

Reward First’s Doyle teaches the former and says it attracts people in the early stages of their career who want to move into reward or benefits, as well as those already in-post. “One of the things you discover in benefits or reward is that sometimes the language used is not understood by the general person, so it is helpful to understand the challenges,” she says.

Employee Benefits recently launched the Employee Benefits Academy in a joint venture with Total Reward Academy. This will offer courses for those interested in benefits careers.

Relevant experience

But qualifications are not the be-all and end-all, says Lane. “Employers are much more interested in relevant experience, whether that is management of a global benefits programme or implementation of a flexible benefits plan.”

Once in a benefits role, there are likely to be two routes to take, says Wallace. “People tend to start in more of a generalist compensation and benefits role and either grow with that and become more senior or take a different avenue. Some big firms have a lot of share plan roles, and we also have more analytical roles. In a larger organisation, you can specialise more.”

Another option to consider is working for a benefits consultancy. Michael Bairstow, senior business manager at Hays Recruitment, says large organisations such as Mercer, Aon Hewitt and Towers Watson recruit graduates with a good 2:1 degree, or with less than two years’ experience in an in-house HR or benefits role.

Such posts tend to offer greater variety and experience than in-house roles, says Bairstow. “But people can end up going in-house as a pensions manager because they have wider knowledge. They then move into benefits and reward and end up being head of reward.”

Whatever route people take, the demand for good benefits professionals is only likely to increase. Lane adds: “It is a niche area that businesses are focusing on more now because there is more emphasis on recognition.”

Vitushni Balavarnan

CASE STUDY – VITUSHNI BALAVARNAN

Vitushni Balavarnan started planning a career in benefits during an economics degree course. “I spent two summers working in HR,” she says. “I liked the analytical side, so I thought I would be suited to reward and benefits.”

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On graduation, she studied for a Masters in HR and business, making sure she would be Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development-qualified with the course she chose. “After that, I joined a company on an HR graduate scheme and that’s where I got my in-depth experience of benefi ts,” she says. “I really enjoyed that because I could see the link between the business objectives and what we were trying to do.”

Balavarnan went on to work as an HR generalist in a temporary position before moving to McGraw Hill as an HR reward and systems analyst. She has since been promoted to senior compensation and benefits analyst, and is keen to maintain this dual focus.