SURVEY SAYS: Skills Needed by Plan Sponsors

October 28, 2013 ( – Last week, I asked NewsDash readers what skills they plan sponsors need in today’s retirement landscape to manage or administer retirement benefits for employees.

I also asked what degrees, other than human resources, would be helpful.

Verbal communications, written communications and customer service skills tied for first place, with each selected by nearly 47% of responding readers. Organization skills tied for second with “all of the above,” chosen by 42% of respondents.

Forty percent of readers said those who work in retirement benefits need math skills, and 30% indicated multi-tasking skills are needed. Twenty percent identified conflict resolution skills as necessary; 16% chose people management skills; 11% selected delegation skills and 2% said none of these skilled are needed.

“Other” responses included:

  • Ability to understand IRS and DOL regulations
  • logistical skills, archival skills, and a fantastic memory
  • good reading skills (someone needs to read the plan documents)
  • Ability to work with senior leadership & investment review committee, in regards to plan design (proposing changes, impact to business, etc). Ability to understand dense language (plan docs, ERISA/IRS/DOL publications & the law, vendor contracts) & be able to “boil it down” to communicate salient points with management, IRC, & participants.
  • creative problem solving; resourcefulness
  • finance
  • I didn’t see schmoozability
  • patience, a strong stomach, and the ability to swim after being dropped into the deep end of the pool…


Among the degrees I suggested that would be helpful for those who handle a plan sponsor’s retirement benefits, “accounting” was selected by the most readers (40%). More than 35% selected “law.” Eighteen percent chose “math,” 13% selected “psychology,” and 7% chose “English.” Eleven percent said all of the above degrees would be helpful and 7% indicated none of them would be.

“Other” responses included:

  • Engineering,
  • Communications,
  • Business Adminstration,
  • Computer science/information systems,
  • Actuarial science,
  • Finance,
  • Social work,
  • The Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS) designation,
  • A degree in patience, and
  • A degree in juggling.


A couple of readers expressed that they didn’t think a human resources degree would be necessary.

In the verbatim comments, the theme seemed to be that understanding participants is key to the job. A few commenters contended that all you need is common sense. Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who said: “You need to know numbers and be a people person, with thick skin.”


Engineers know how to think critically and problem solve. Retirement is a complex issue that needs the discipline of an engineer to think through mutliple issues and objectives.


To effectively manage/administer retirement plans, both hard and soft skills are required. We must comply with complex regs, keep extremely accurate records, and have the people/cheerleader skills to encourage our employee base to participate in the best manner for them, while dealing with participant crises and provider failures. It is challenging but rewarding.


In addition to the numbers and the various benefits, understanding of the personal needs is also important.


You need a wonderful sense of humor and a great deal of patience.


Retirement plans are merely formulas for asset accumulation with favorable tax treatment. The plan terms complicate matters, as do investment choices. Hire experts to help.


Is anyone out there offering a degree in Common Sense?!


I have an MIS degree. The combo of accounting and computer science has been very helpful to me. Can't imagine doing this job without that background.


I started to check verbal communications but more to the point I would say being able to "understand" others. Today no one enunciates or speaks clearly; sometimes it is very difficult to even figure out what they are talking about. Not sure there is a course for this but it would be a helpful skill. You can only ask people to repeat themselves so many times before it becomes ridiculous.


Since many Baby Boomers are working longer and retiring at older ages, I think a degree in Geriatrics would be most helpful.


Retirement financial planning, maintain current knowledge of Medicare and social security benefits and projected changes. Ability to create and update income replacement graphs for retirees which take into account increased medical insurance premiums, both Medicare and supplemental plans.


Patience is also a good skill.


You need to know numbers and be a people person, with thick skin.

Verbatim (cont.)

customer service + sensitivity to people - many times we are dealing w/ former employees who are elderly &/or their family members, or family members who have just lost a loved one & are mourning their loss while trying to sort out the money side of things. We also need to be able to effectively communicate w/ senior leadership & influence decisions on everything from plan design to ensuring compliance with the law.


A degree that enables the ability to communicate and articulate in the vernacular of the audience. I'm not sure they offer this in school though.


Psychology is necessary to get into people's heads to get them to do what they have to do before they understand they have to do it.


With so many government regulations and changes going on, can anyone really have enough degrees?


As a social worker, you are taught communication skills to assist with conflict resolution; but also who to help people learn skills to help themselves. Plan sponsors need to educate employees for them to make the correct choices for their situations.


I disagree with the premise of the question that a human resource degree is the base level. Retirement plan program managers should have a finance or legal background with a little bit of tech thrown in.


HR staff need to understand basic investing, mutual funds, etc. As a plan portfolio manager, explaining the basics over and over gets tiring.


Managers and administrators need the same degree most people need - Common Sense -


Retirement Plan Associate designation from ISCEBS organization.


It's unfortunate but common sense is not allowed by regulation.


What you need are people skills and an aptitude for basic math. It ain't rocket science, it just feels that way some days...



NOTE: Responses reflect the opinions of individual readers and not the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.
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