Think about the advice you’ve been given when searching for a job: Make sure to check out the employee benefits. But what are those benefits? Employee benefits are the non-wage portion of compensation such as health insurance, retirement plans, life insurance, disability insurance, pet insurance and more. Those benefits don’t work in a vacuum— they need people to help make them effective. Ever heard of an employee benefits professional? No? You’re not alone. This not-too-well-known but highly rewarding profession consists of the people who make employee benefits effective.
If you like problem solving and helping others, read on to learn how to become an employee benefits professional.
What does an employee benefits professional do?
Generally, employee benefits professionals break into two categories. One category includes individuals who work at an employer in a department that may include human resources or may be a stand-alone department such as employee benefits or total rewards. The other category includes individuals who work at organizations that help employers with employee benefits in a consultative role. Among others, positions include the following:
- Benefits specialist
- Communications strategist
- Compliance attorney
- Data analytics specialist
- Director of Total Rewards
- Financial advisor
- Global benefits specialist or analyst
- Human Resources manager or specialist
“Broadly, an employee benefits professional is someone who has core knowledge of the various types of employee benefits and how to administer them for the benefit of employees and their families. That means a whole lot of things. There are so many types of day-to-day jobs. You’re really helping people. Helping them get the benefits of healthcare insurance and later retirement benefits. But you have this knowledge and education to be a professional and do it the right way,” Director at Educational Program Development, International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans Carey Wooton said.
Typically, employee benefits professionals gain expertise in either health and welfare benefits, such as medical insurance, life insurance and similar benefits, or retirement benefits, such as 401k plans. However, some individuals, particularly at smaller organizations, become familiar with requirements and methods of operation for both. Because both categories of benefits are heavily regulated, outside expertise in the form of legal counsel or other consulting fields often becomes essential. Thus, it is possible to become an employee benefits professional through related fields, such as legal, actuarial and other technical fields, but those professionals typically require additional or specialized education or training.
What does it take to become an employee benefits professional?
Generally, organizations require an employee benefits professional to have a bachelor’s degree. Because employee benefits professionals come from many different backgrounds, no specific degree requirement exists. General business degrees are a popular choice for aspiring employee benefits professionals. In addition, education related to human resources will help an individual understand how benefits fit into the broader structure of employment.
“While degree requirements vary by organization, often you will find someone with a degree in business or an analytical field. Employee benefits are governed heavily by federal and state regulations so having a certification in employee benefits is helpful. One of the premier certifications is the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS), which is offered by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans,” Director at Benefits at Memorial Hermann Health System John Eshleman said.
“Training with the CEBS program really sets you apart,” Wooton said. “It teaches you about the history and the nuts and bolts of employee benefits administration.”
Notably, students can start their CEBS study at any time during their college careers because students complete the CEBS program through self-study. Granted, you may not really want to add any additional studies to your already heavy load of classes, but certification through the program can really give you a leg up. It takes between one and three years to obtain. Once you become a student, you can join the International Society of Employee Benefit Specialists (ISCEBS), which is where the real advantages arise. ISCEBS has conferences and networking opportunities that allow you to meet and network with working employee benefits professionals. Also, employers may pay for their employees to obtain CEBS certification, so you may be able to start in the program as a college student and then obtain your full certification once you start your career.
What should you know about becoming an employee benefits specialist?
1. How much will you make as an employee benefits specialist?
Entry level positions start around $50,000 to $60,000 and may be hourly or salaried, depending on the nature of the role. A benefits manager averages an annual compensation of $115,000 to $120,000.
2. How much will you be expected to work?
On average, employee benefits professionals work 40 hours per week. However, certain times of the year require additional hours. These times of year revolve around “annual enrollment” or “open enrollment.” Enrollment periods allow employees to change their benefit elections, and that triggers a heavier workload for a few months.
3. What will your work environment look like?
“Most of the time is spent in an office environment (either at the office or a home office). Many roles require the occasional on-site work for events such as enrollment or benefit fairs,” Eshleman said.
“There’s a lot of hybrid and even remote work. Sometimes, the work will be fully onsite, but that depends on the industry. For example, if you are a benefits professional for a manufacturing company, the employees are mostly onsite; thus, you’d be expected to be onsite too,” Wooton said.
In contrast, consultants more often spend time in other organizations’ offices. Consultants are frequently on the go or working remotely, but they also have professionals working in an office environment to support them and their clients. Because of the nature of their work, consultants often travel and can spend 25% to 50% of their time traveling to other locations and even internationally. Consultants also become involved with enrollment periods and see their working hours increase during the months prior to enrollment.
“Remote working is where it’s at, and spending time with clients and prospect clients is the majority of the work,” U.S. Division Vice President, Sales Enablement, Gallagher, Kristy Ventimiglia said. “Now, that can include Zoom or Teams meetings, so not all meetings are in person, but consultants spend most of their time with clients and prospects.”
4. What do you need to know about the future of the employee benefits profession?
After World War II, Congress directed the President to freeze wages and prices as of a certain date in 1942 to fight inflation. As a result of that action, employers seeking to attract and retain employees turned to fringe benefits, such as health insurance. The law did not treat fringe benefits as inflationary, and thus they were not subject to the limitations. Even though Congress eventually relinquished the caps on wages, fringe benefits became a part of the American wage experience and thus a new type of employee, the employee benefits professional became a solid part of the American workforce. Since that time, the field has only grown as the complexity of legislation and the American workers’ expectations for fringe benefits have grown.
“Keeping up with all the legislation in health or retirement can be dizzying, so you really need someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s not going away. Because everyone needs the various benefits, and as workers have more choices about where to work, employee benefits are a big factor,” Wooton said.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Affordable Care Act, also called the ACA. This landmark piece of legislation is just one of the laws impacting employee benefits, and it now has more pages of regulations than the Internal Revenue Code does for tax purposes. Someone must understand and apply those rules (and many more) to employee benefits to help employers avoid the potential for millions of dollars in penalties and to make sure that benefits meet applicable laws. While the field is complex, it’s also an innovative and growing area. Positions exist today not thought of ten years ago. As the need for highly competent individuals grows, that growth and innovation continues.
What skills do you need to become an employee benefits professional?
1. Creative thinking
While the field may seem simple, you select and provide benefits— the day-to-day operation involves a great deal of problem solving and thus a need for creative thinking. If you step back for a moment, it becomes apparent that employee benefits are all about solving problems. I have a health issue; how can I afford to pay for the cost of treatment? I want to retire one day; how am I going to save enough money? I was injured in a car accident and will miss six weeks of work; how am I going to pay my living expenses? Employee benefits provide solutions for these problems.
But then problems crop up within the solutions. “I just received a bill for my surgery saying that the anesthesiologist is out-of-network and I owe $20,000. Help!” Employee benefits professionals often assist with finding solutions to coverage and payment issues such as this. Additionally, employee benefits professionals analyze long-term and short-term organizational goals to determine how employee benefits support those goals and become involved in decision-making processes that impact the daily lives of employees and their families.
An employee benefits professional must have strong listening skills to be effective. Impactful benefits correlate to a given employer’s needs. To find out what an employer, its employees and its employees’ families need, someone must learn what those needs are, and thus listening skills become front and center. After identifying needs, the employee benefits professional must engage in a second round of listening to find solutions for the expressed needs.
3. Ability to communicate
“Finding ways to effectively communicate to increase awareness of your plans is key,” Eshleman said.
Communication takes both oral and written form, and in some industries, it also involves signed language. Strong communication skills not only involve raising awareness of benefits, but also relate back to creative solutions when problems arise. The opportunity to engage in creative communication arises too— particularly when explaining employee benefits. Should we creative flyers? Should we do a video? Should we send out mass emails? Should we write FAQs? These and many more communication opportunities arise for employee benefits professionals.
What are the reviews on being an employee benefits professional?
“It’s a very rewarding career in that you can help employees’ lives through offering the right benefit programs,” Eshleman said.
“Being an employee benefits professional is really rewarding. It’s the kind of job that you can work in almost any industry and in so many different capacities, but still in the employee benefits arena. You get to help people. You get to be part of the decision-making process. You get to make a positive impact on peoples’ lives. It’s a win-win kind of job with a lot of hard work thrown in between,” Wooton said.
“I work in a field as a consultant. I get to meet new people, and I get to help solve their problems. It’s a lot of fun. Personally, I wish I’d discovered my profession earlier. No one really thinks about insurance. But it’s a respectable career, and if you really like to solve problems, it’s a great career,” Ventimiglia said.