How to Become a Compliance Officer

Compliance officers are trained to guide businesses and organizations, ensuring they adhere to government regulations. This position spans multiple industries, from healthcare and government to real estate and retail—so a number of postsecondary degree programs can prepare individuals for the job. People considering this profession may have questions about skill requirements for the role, earning potential, and common work settings, or wonder how long it takes to become a compliance officer. 

While each person’s pathway looks different, there are some basic details about the field to keep in mind.

1. Consider Your Career Preferences

The industry an individual chooses will likely determine what they study and whether they pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Larger industries may provide more opportunities for entry and advancement, while smaller industries may offer higher pay once a compliance officer is more experienced. 

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) occupational employment and wage data for compliance officers, common industries for compliance officers include:

Employment (as of May 2021)
Federal executive branch
State government
Local government
Management of companies and enterprises
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing

2. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Compliance officers typically have a four-year bachelor’s degree. They might start off with a bachelor’s degree program that’s related to their industry preference. Common majors for aspiring compliance officers include accounting, business, economics, finance, legal studies, management, and manufacturing. 

A bachelor’s degree is generally required in order to earn a master’s degree, and it can help individuals prepare for passing a certification exam to receive professional compliance credentials. 

3. Consider a Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree has a number of benefits. The advanced degree may help qualify professionals for more senior positions. More specifically, selecting an area of specialization within a master’s program can make an individual’s skills more relevant to the demands of the current job market. 

Some employers may be willing to subsidize a worker’s advancement, offering tuition reimbursement for entry-level employees who are pursuing a relevant degree, such as a Master of Legal Studies (MLS). An online master’s in legal studies program provides learners with the flexibility to complete coursework on their own time.

Not only can an online program be completed from any location, but the coursework is role-relevant across industries and students who work can put it to use right away. Students will learn transferable skills through a variety of courses in business management, contract negotiation, employment law, regulatory compliance, and strategic planning. Upon completion of the program, graduates may pursue MLS careers that involve some aspect of compliance but aren’t limited to it.

Request more information about Pepperdine’s online Master’s in Legal Studies.

4. Gain Work Experience

Companies of all sizes hire interns, providing a viable way to gain essential experience before entering the workforce and helping individuals decide where they may or may not want to work after graduation. Internships can be full or part time, paid or unpaid. 

Responsibilities vary by company, but generally, interns can expect to gain knowledge, training, skills, and experience specific to the role. Interns may act as a central point of contact within an organization, learning software programs, documenting policies and procedures, conducting research, or assisting management with specific project tasks.

Aside from completing internships, recent graduates may be able to enter the field directly and receive on-the-job training. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees may also work at a company in analysis or client support for several years before requesting a transition to the compliance department. 

5. Pursue Certifications

Certification in this field is voluntary, but could be used to demonstrate proficiency, secure a job, command a raise, network with other professionals, or keep skills sharp over time.

Compliance certifications can be obtained through the following credentialing agencies:

Certification program requirements vary, but candidates may need one or more years of work experience, a signed ethics statement, or continuing education units earned through live training or events before sitting for the exam. Professionals may need to pay annual/renewal fees or take continuing education units to maintain their credentials.

What Does a Compliance Officer Do?

Depending on employer and industry, daily responsibilities vary widely. A compliance officer’s email inbox often determines priorities for the day. They may have meetings with chief executives and guide teams in discussing important regulatory issues.

Compliance officers may also be responsible for the following tasks:

  • Communicating internal and external compliance rules to employees.
  • Conducting internal audits and preparing the company for external audits.
  • Consulting with project teams to ensure compliant products and services.
  • Creating and coordinating reporting channels to handle compliance issues.
  • Designing, implementing, and monitoring the company’s compliance program.
  • Ensuring consistency in control methodologies for assessing results.
  • Establishing routines and methods to investigate compliance anomalies.
  • Following new proposals, laws, and regulations to keep up with changing requirements.
  • Investigating violations or areas of noncompliance and developing course corrections.
  • Performing risk assessments and coordinating special projects.
  • Recommending program changes to meet shifting rules and regulations.
  • Reviewing documents from various departments to ensure they are compliant. 
  • Submitting documentation to meet compliance standards.

What Skills Do Compliance Officers Need?

While on-the-job responsibilities differ by role, compliance officers share some important skills that help them guide their teams, identify and rectify areas of noncompliance, and more. Common compliance officer skills and abilities include:

  • Analytical skills to interpret data.
  • Conflict management skills and resilience.
  • Critical thinking, risk assessment, and problem solving skills.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Leadership to develop and grow a compliance program.
  • Time management skills and the ability to multitask.

Compliance officers have integrity and strong ethics. They are naturally meticulous, paying attention to details with a thorough approach rather than rushing through tasks. These life-long learners follow industry news to remain current in their knowledge and skills.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Compliance Officer?

Four years of studying to earn a bachelor’s degree may be sufficient to secure an entry-level position as a compliance officer. Those who have a bachelor’s degree can complete a master’s degree program in two years. Some programs may offer accelerated paths to earning a degree, but it could take longer depending on whether a student is enrolled on a part-time basis. 

Is a Career as a Compliance Officer a Good Choice?

Assessing personal goals can help determine whether becoming a compliance officer is worth it. A compliance officer may be the bearer of bad news when an issue arises, but oftentimes it is necessary to avoid further damage down the line. The job involves ever-changing regulatory landscapes, and often, a lot of paperwork. However, there are advantages. The option to telecommute, for example, may afford professionals with flexibility and a decent work-life balance. 

A strong communicator or people person may enjoy the ability to liaise across departments and work in a leadership capacity. Choice of industry opens this career up to people from a number of different educational backgrounds.  

Apart from personal qualities, factors like pay and career outlook can help frame your answer to the question: is a career as a compliance officer a good choice?

How Much Do Compliance Officers Make?

Compliance officer salary varies considerably by industry. BLS occupational employment and wage data for compliance officers from 2021 includes the mean annual salaries for compliance officers in a number of industries including: 

  • Natural gas distribution: $101,710 
  • Federal executive branch: $88,260 
  • Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $88,150 
  • Management of companies and enterprises: $84,940 
  • Insurance carriers: $78,960
  • Local government: $65,640 
  • State government: $60,330 

The following fields offered the highest mean annual salaries:

  • Pipeline transportation of crude oil: $120,580
  • Other information services: $114,700
  • Motion picture and video industries: $109,960
  • Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing: $108,950
  • Engine, turbine, and power transmission equipment manufacturing: $105,200

Salary also varies by geographic location, company size, education, and experience. According to BLS findings, the median weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree, the median weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $1,305, compared to $1,545 for someone with a master’s degree. Employment for compliance officers is strong nationwide, but top-paying states include the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. 

What Is the Job Outlook for Compliance Officers?

The job market for compliance officers is projected to grow 6% between 2020 and 2030, according to CareerOneStop. In California, compliance officer jobs are projected to grow 8%, about as fast as the average growth rate for all occupations. Projected annual job openings total 4,130.

Representing 42,230 jobs, California currently employs the highest number of compliance officers, according to BLS occupational employment and wage data

High levels of responsibility may equate to stress, but U.S. News & World Report has found compliance officers enjoy above-average advancement opportunities and a good deal of flexibility that allows for decent work-life balance.  

Career Paths for Compliance Officers

In an industry like banking, compliance officers might get their start in retail banking and eventually move into corporate banking, or specialize in areas like international trade or mergers and acquisitions. In any industry, ascending the ranks to become Chief Compliance Officer may bring above-average salaries, and professionals may also find high demand for their expertise working as an independent consultant. 

The potential job opportunities are many—it all comes down to personal goals and preferences.

Last updated April 2022.