Practice management literature frequently tells advisors to leverage their time by using interns or other part-time assistants. But it seldom provides any how-to advice - where to find good interns, how to keep talented ones busy with productive work or how to compensate them properly.
Whether you are a sole practitioner or a large firm with multiple advisors, a solid internship program can add significant value to the quality of work your business produces. In addition, interns can increase your capacity to grow your business or allow you to carve out additional free time for yourself and whatever goals you may have. It is also a way to give back to the industry; a good internship program can be invaluable to future planners, and it can help them better define their career aspirations.
Perhaps most important for a growing firm, an internship can be a valuable way to try out a potential future employee, avoiding costly hiring mistakes. Putting someone through the rigor of working every day in a potentially stressful profession can give you a sense of how he or she would fit in with your organization and culture.
WHERE TO LOOK
Finding a suitable intern can be a tricky task. Most important, you must feel confident that the individual you choose will respect and protect the privacy and financial information of your clients and your business.
You can start the process on your website; three-quarters of Gen Y professionals visit company websites to learn more about prospective employers, according to the 2007 Robert Half International Report, What Millennial Workers Want: How to Attract and Retain Gen Y Employees.
Also contact the program managers in the business and finance departments at area colleges and universities. Many of these schools mention portfolio management or financial planning, but most do not have full-time degree programs. In today's job market, many students will jump at an opportunity to get a foot in the door through an internship.
The most valuable places to look are the educational institutions that have CFP Board-approved curricula or CFP Board-registered programs. A full listing of these programs can be found at cfp.net/teamup/colleges.asp. Postings at these schools (either online or on location) can also be a rich place to find help.
If you have identified a particular school that has students you want to meet, go to the job-posting website to list your opportunity or search student resumes. You can find examples at Texas Tech's site, depts.ttu.edu/pfp/job_bank.php; or Virginia Tech's website, fnpn.agecon.vt.edu.
Many of these schools also have events such as job fairs or career days to showcase their students to possible employers. Sites such as NAPFA's (napfa.org/career/opportunities/index.asp); FPA's (fpanet.org/CareerPractice/Jobs); and Charles Schwab Institutional GrowthPoint Human Capital's (schwabinstitutional.com/humancapital) provide links where potential interns can post their resumes for your review, as well as places for you to post internship opportunities at no cost.
Alternatively, you can look for potential candidates when you travel to national conferences. At most FPA and NAPFA regional and national conferences, there are scholarship winners in attendance, many of whom are students trying to break into the financial planning profession. Charles Schwab Institutional has developed a program at its annual Impact conference, set for Nov. 1-4 in San Francisco, for students from various CFP Board-registered institutions to mingle with and scout for potential financial planning employers.
WHAT TO SAY
When you post your prospective intern's job description, consider using something similar to your paraplanner or associate advisor positions. Their experience should mirror what your newer, less experienced advisors go through in their first years.
The job description should include the title of the direct report, key responsibilities, qualification expectations and compensation (unless the internship is for academic credit). Set a deadline for applications to allow you to evaluate all the candidates together.
When candidates show interest in your job posting, you should have a consistent way to screen and interview them. First, look for candidates with educational experience in the financial planning field, exposure to a professional setting and community service or relevant extracurricular activities.
If you have associate planners, involve them in the interview process. Obtain their appraisal of the candidate since they will be working with the intern closely. Be sure during the interview to discuss your firm's vision, strategy and client value proposition.
STRUCTURING THE JOB
An intern's first and main role is to help the paraplanner or associate advisor prepare for client meetings. This may include gathering data, putting together performance reports and rebalancing recommendations, and other due diligence related to a client's investments or financial situation.
The goal is for interns to be doing as much of the associate advisor's duties as possible before they complete their tenure. It is also a great opportunity for less experienced advisors to develop their mentoring and leadership skills by supervising much of the preparation for client meetings, as well as the intern's overall workload.
The most valuable experience the intern will gain is the ability to interact with your clients. It is valuable to learn how to prepare materials for a meeting. But seeing how those materials are presented in a meeting and understanding how an advisor interacts with clients can't be learned in any textbook or classroom. Be sure your clients are comfortable having the intern in their meeting; ask in advance.
Another key role for an intern is to take the lead on projects that the firm has been meaning to tackle for a long time. Before the intern starts, develop a list of five to 10 projects that will keep him or her busy. For example, an intern could verify and confirm all of your client IRA, 401(k) and life insurance beneficiary designations, or integrate a new risk assessment tool into client meetings. Interns should also participate in periodic financial planning and investment committee meetings, with the occasional opportunity to make presentations.
As the program draws to a close, set aside time for each intern to sit down with a senior staff member for an exit interview. This is an opportunity for the intern and the manager to share insights, constructive criticism and feedback.
Should internships be paid? If you're demanding high-quality work, the best practice is to pay a competitive hourly wage, provide flexible work schedules and offer other non-financial perks such as participation in office events.
Because it is a short-term internship and not a full-time position, your interns probably won't be eligible for your health insurance, 401(k) or other benefits. Projects completed during the course of the internship remain the property of your firm and can be used as an ongoing resource for clients.
Should your firm choose not to pay your interns, it is important to consider the legal limitations of performance expectations. The Fair Labor Standards Act states that "if a person meets the definition of an 'employee,' that person must be compensated according to mandatory minimum wage provisions. According to The FLS Handbook for States, Local Governments and Schools, interns are not considered employees when they are involved in education or training programs that are "designed to provide students with professional experience in the furtherance of their education and training, and are academically oriented for their benefit."
The most important part of an internship program is giving students valuable and meaningful responsibilities within your firm. Many intern candidates now have the technical training to take on tasks you might have thought were too demanding. Trust them and challenge them. An effective internship program gives you a wonderful opportunity to utilize and reward capable talent.
While the temporary nature of an internship program requires you to move on, there are valuable opportunities for you as your intern alumni base grows. The last day of work for your interns should not be the last time you speak with them. If your interns made worthy contributions during their stints, you will be expected to serve as a reference, promoting your alums for future employment opportunities.
Similarly, past interns should become advocates for your practice, and sources of employee and intern referrals. Of course, it naturally follows that when your company is ready to hire new full-time employees, a leading group of candidates you will look to is your intern alums who have already had a chance to "interview" for the position.
Jon P. Yankee, CFP, is co-founder of Fox Joss & Yankee, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm in Reston, Va. Laurie A. Belew, CFP, is a financial advisor at the firm and Lisa J. Crafford is office manager. For a free copy of Fox Joss & Yankee's report, Implementing Internships, visit fjyfinancial.com.