Do you need another designation? Or are two already too many?

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Joe White has been at Seneca, one of the largest colleges in Canada, for 12 years on the front line of educating brokers and agents. So when he says that there is a need for more advanced education in the mortgage industry, it has some weight.

But this is nothing new, as a common complaint floating around is that existing continuing education is lacklustre - it's been criticized as being too easy, simply based on attendance or focused only on the products of whichever lender is holding the course. Add this to the fact that in Ontario the path to become a mortgage broker was condensed from 14 courses to just one, with the first offering last December. Already approximately 500 people have been through it for their certifications, and now hold the exact same standing as anyone who had to drudge through the previously, harder to attain requirements.

White saw this first-hand as an instructor, and six months ago starting devising a plan to give brokers who possessed more knowledge and education hours under their belt a way to show it.

"The people who took 14 courses a couple of years ago, how can they use that to differentiate themselves from the ones who just finished the single course?" asks White, pausing before answering his own question. "They can't."

The result is now on the Seneca website in the form of course outlines, under what is called right now Mortgage Industry Workshops. The first offering starts in late June, and on completion of all 10 courses, plus passing a final exam, says White, brokers will be rewarded with three more initials to tack on to the end of their name.

"You start using the word designation and it starts getting tossed around," says White. "It's really a certification. You could get a diploma and stick it on your wall, but a designation is a better way to show it."

The stress here is that it's a designation and nothing more, and it's in no way affiliated with an association. That means no membership dues, only education, and it's offered through a respected college. It's what White sees as the missing piece of the puzzle to designations in Canada, saying, simply, "I'm a huge believer in education."

But has he perhaps put too much faith in education alone, ignoring some of the key benefits to having designations tied to associations? And more simply than that, do brokers want three more letters attached to the end of their name badly enough that they would be willing to pay for it (courses are $195 each, with another fee to take the final exam)?

"Interestingly enough, this is not going to be quick," he says. "Once we have some individuals who have it, we're hoping for a grassroots movement that will push it along."

The right time?

So why wait until now to launch a new designation? The country is in a recession, a lot of brokers feel they are under attack from big banks trying to take back market share, and when, more importantly than ever, it's all about establishing your name in the community, not adding to your acronyms. While the two existing associations offering designations (CAAMP's AMP and IMBA's CPMB and CPMA) are subject to criticism, they are, after all, still relatively young in the industry, so some growing pains are expected.

"We talked to AMPs and they asked us to raise the bar," says Mark Webb, vice-president, education and professional affairs at CAAMP, which now has 3,600 members across the country.

"That's why we've increased the required amount of continuing education hours from 10 to 12, and we also want to significantly ramp up promotion of the designation."

Webb adds that 90 per cent of AMP dues go into promoting it to consumers and that an AMP was quoted in 50 newspapers in the last 60 days.

"We actually have people who keep track of these things," he says.

Another advantage to having associations run designations, he says, is that they provide a structure to promote professionalism, and in order to do that you "have to police people, and you can't police non-members. You bring them in and if they do misbehave, well then you can suspend them or kick them out."

This is an obvious benefit to having an association attached to a designation, where not only are dues paid regularly, but it gives access to events, industry updates and bargaining power (CAAMP and IMBA played major roles in the recent Ontario broker law, for instance). Any mortgage professional/member
who is caught performing unethically has a lot more to lose, than say, someone who receives a designation with no strings attached.

Jeff Atlin, IMBA president, points to something else.

"One benefit [to designations] is that it's got people thinking about continuing education and certification," he says, but adds "up to this point though, there hasn't been a great deal of benefit other than that. There are largely two issues: the buy in from the industry, and the buy in from the public. Let's face it, the AMP is probably losing traction out West, and IMBA isn't gaining any here, which is why we [IMBA] have plans to revamp everything."

While Atlin was sparse on revamp details, he talks of government support, at least in terms of mandating continuing education for brokers, effective education and, most importantly, public awareness.

"We've been working on our changes for four to five months now, but the bug has been around longer than that," he says, adding that he would be disappointed if the revamping wasn't complete this year.

Such frank comments point to the common sentiment that while yes, the existing designations are great to add legitimacy and professionalism, the way they are now isn't exactly right either.

John Bargis, vice-president at Mortgage Edge in Richmond Hill, Ont. has been "designationless" for 19 years and in the financial business for 25. He sees no real value in holding any of the designations available in their current forms.

"Do you know how many times I have been asked if I have a designation by a client? Zero," he says. "The designation doesn't sell the client, it's the individual, and agents who do well as community mortgage professionals are the ones that are going to be much more successful in the long run."

Paul Bath, president at Centum Hewmac Mortgage Centre in Newmarket, Ont., as well as a former mortgage instructor who had a hand in designing the CPMB, points to the fact that you don't have to be a broker to hold the AMP.

"I know people in the software business that have their AMP, which is OK because they took their education, but it doesn't differentiate them from brokers."

The newly proposed designation from White would, however, be only for brokers (as is the CPMB), but it would also work to differentiate the more knowledgeable from the less knowledgeable.

"My first thought is that it's not promoting brokers who belong to an association," says Bath. "Anyone with qualifications can deliver education, but every broker should belong to an association."

Bath also mentions a point that almost every broker contacted for this article brought up as well: "Too many designations dilutes them," he says. "To be honest, I think it will just confuse the public more - what's the difference?"

The right solution?

Long term, designations show a commitment to the industry and to continuing education, but right now, the overall image - and it doesn't matter what designation you're talking about - is that they need work."

A case can be made against having too many designations within one industry just by looking at financial planning, which until being united under the CFP, had too many competing designations, as reported by CMP in October of 2007.

"I would agree that if you have multiple designations then it's confusing for the public," says Webb. "When an unfortunate battle of the designations happened with financial planning, it was not particularly helpful. But when you have a designation and the public doesn't know about it, it's an even tougher sell."

That said, the 10 courses designed by White that would go towards acquiring the new designation have already been approved for six CAAMP CE credits.

Even White admits "a designation is useless unless you have a multi-million dollar campaign behind it. If you give your business card now and ask the client if they know what this designation means, 90 per cent would say no," he says. So why launch a designation without an association that will be marketing to the public?

"It's good to have different designations in one industry because they show different levels of knowledge," he says. "I'm not saying, 'hey, here's a designation if you're a member. The point of certifying someone with this is that it's to ensure they meet a high level of knowledge."

And it seems White has some people in the industry that agree with him, such as Kevin Rallings, regional manager for GTA west at Invis, who plans to "offer the courses to its brokers on behalf of White."

"We've been looking for something that was going to be a better indicator of the professionalism of the industry," says Rallings. "Think about it logically. Associations have vested interest in people having it, but education doesn't have any interest in it except for educational. If we can assure lenders, for instance, that we've reached a minimum (albeit a high) level of knowledge and professionalism, then we can improve those relationships and our overall situation."

If another designation is the best solution or not is one thing, but if that thought process at Invis can spread throughout the industry it will determine exactly how elite the first batch of new designees will be (as in, possibly the only ones). Either way, White doesn't seem too concerned.

"Whether it's the right time or not only the industry will say, but I think it's worth the while," he says. "This will either live or die on a grassroots movement."