Occupational standards for retail financial services look set for a radical overhaul following a consultation by the industry's sector skills council (SSC) that closes on 28 April.
The Financial Services Skills Council (FSSC) believes the new standards, currently in draft form, will enable firms to benchmark and better assess the competence of their employees - critical to building public trust in the wake of scandals over the mis-selling of pensions and endowment policies.
The new draft standards coincide with calls from the Securities & Investment Institute for mandatory continuous professional development in the industry to reassure consumers.
Historically, financial industry standards have been developed separately for each of the various sub-sectors with retail financial services. Now the FSSC is pushing for an integrated approach to standards based on core competencies that are common to everyone working in financial services.
Where possible, standards for particular roles will emphasise the common skills and knowledge required across the entire industry, such as with sales, while other roles, such as underwriting in general insurance, will remain distinct to their sub-sector.
The idea is to provide employers with a 'menu' from which they can select competence requirements of roles within their business, according to the FSSC's standards and accreditation director, Lucy Courtenay. She said the reforms reflect the changing face of the industry. More companies are expanding the range of services and products they offer and, as of this year, the Financial Services Authority is now the single regulator for the industry.
"We hold a list of exams that individuals are required to take, such as financial advice, mortgage advice and assets management," said Courtenay. "Those tend to be quite specialised. The standards we're developing now are much broader and cover many more of the roles of the sector."
As part of the consultation, the FSSC is also seeking employer support for the development of a qualifications framework following on from the new occupational standards. There is no model for the framework as yet, but Courtenay said it could start taking shape later this year following the approval of the standards in May.
Echoing views expressed by employers and SSCs in other sectors, such as retail, Courtenay wants to see qualifications that offer more flexibility, rather than 'pigeon-holing' individuals into particular roles.
At Barclays, Andrew Podd, director in compliance, represents the bank on the FSSC's major employer advisory forum.
"We're very supportive of this view," he said. "It's quite timely and gives us the opportunity to reassess those skills that are most important to staff in front line customer-facing roles."
Given the numerous qualifications that currently exist, he is keen for a "harmonised qualifications framework" to follow on from the standards reform to provide clarity for employers and staff.
"We have a number of different routes into customer-facing roles, but a qualifications framework that's universally accepted is much needed," he said.
The FSSC emphasises the role employers have played in designing the new occupational standards, and is confident of a positive outcome from the consultation.
Richard Moss, training consultant for Scottish Life, agreed, describing the benchmarking the standards will enable as a "real plus".
"When you put that alongside the aim of attracting new blood into the industry, that has to be a good thing," he said.
Roundtable discussions between the FSSC and employers begin this month.