Hit the books to head up the pack

The Financial Services Skills Council has a range of initiatives planned for 2006 and mortgage professionals must keep abreast of the changes to stay ahead of the game, says Brad Baker

It always pays to be one step ahead of the pack in terms of qualifications, training and lifelong learning. One of the best career moves I ever made was in taking and passing CeMAP in the early days of mortgage qualifications, back in 1998. I am sure that holding this particular qualification was helpful towards securing my subsequent position at the Mortgage Code Compliance Board.

While the MCCB didn’t sell mortgages, I was still proud of being professionally qualified for my industry, and believe this enhanced my personal credibility when promoting the value of training and qualifications.

With the benefits of staying ahead of the game in mind, it is important mortgage professionals keep a close check on the work of the Financial Services Skills Council (www.fssc.org.uk), as it has a key influence on our working environment. The FSSC’s objective is to provide strategic leadership for training, education and workforce development in the financial services industry.This employer-led body is licensed by the government, and aims to co-ordinate improvements in the sector’s skills base, raise productivity and improve business performance.

Since 2003, the FSSC has determined which examinations are appropriate for regulated activities, including mortgage selling and arranging, having been tasked with these responsibilities by the Financial Services Authority. It works closely with the regulator, industry and exam providers to ensure that the qualification process and curriculum is robust and that the required standards are applied across the spectrum.

The FSA’s training and competence rules make it clear that the responsibility for ensuring individuals have passed a relevant appropriate exam rests with an individual’s company. Appropriate is defined as ‘fit for purpose’.The FSA’s remit is to protect consumers by ensuring that companies employ competent people. The FSSC’s activities support this remit, and it intends that all examinations and qualifications used in the sector represent sound business investment. This is for a host of reasons.

For example, they protect consumers, improving the reputation of a company. And they add value to a business, because they equip individuals to perform competently. They also add value for those that pass exams, because they enhance career prospects.

To find out more about what is in the pipeline for 2006, I recently had a briefing from Lucy Courtenay, the FSSC’s standards and accreditation director. Courtenay is well known from her previous role at the Chartered Insurance Institute, where she worked closely with the MCCB and the trade associations on matters regarding the CII’s Mortgage Advice Qualification.

One of the FSSC’s key tasks is to attract staff to the sector by developing a recruitment strategy for young people. The body has been developing a range of initiatives in this regard. These include apprenticeships in financial services, the development of special diplomas for 14 to 19 year olds in schools and colleges, and working with higher education institutions on the development of foundation degrees in financial services.

The FSSC recently announced that it was successful in its bid to establish a National Financial Services Academy. National Skills Academies are initiatives that will provide vocational training, led by employers and funded by the private and public sectors. Employers will decide on the programmes offered, which might include new education and work-based routes to employment and flexible, short programmes. The academy is scheduled to open in September 2006, with three centres in London, Manchester and Norwich and more to follow in the next few years.

The specialised diploma routes are most interesting as it is envisaged that 30-40% of a student’s time will be spent in the occupational sphere. The FSSC is seeking a great deal of industry input in shaping these key future arrangements, and it is important to look out for announcements and get involved. Getting it right will ensure an influx of quality young recruits to the industry.

Another area of development has been the FSSC’s piloting of a work-based qualification for financial advisers, which builds on the minimum appropriate qualification and is assessed – based on FSA requirements – by inhouse supervisors. While the FSSC’s view is that there is more scope for these qualifications in the IFA arena, it believes it may be possible to carry them across into mortgage sales.

There is also ongoing work in developing qualification requirements for supervisors, as many involved in the pilot have expressed a desire for a formal accreditation of their supervisory activities. This is another area to watch in the next 12 months.

One area that may be controversial is that the FSSC is going through the process with some lenders with a view to granting them accreditation to set their own qualifications. Such accreditations would follow an exhaustive assessment and audit process, and must of course meet all the requirements of appropriate exams. But there is a danger from a consumer and public relations perspective that the hard-won raising of standards – brought about by the introduction for all mortgage advisers of compulsory external qualifications – might be diluted.

Such lender-based internal provision will be cheaper for companies and may afford some protection from training staff with generic and portable qualifications who are then headhunted away, but the danger of customer confusion and diminishing respect for mortgage qualifications remains real and is an issue that will need careful management.

The recent Treasury consultation on the regulation of home reversion plans may lead to the future development of appropriate exams in this area, and I know the FSSC is also now looking at this. With an active Skills Council and with so many qualification options and career paths available – lifetime mortgages, Treating Customers Fairly, general insurance options and advanced qualifications – we will all need to keep abreast with developments in the skills and training area over the next 12 months.

Brad Baker is former director of communications, MCCB