Should you hire an intern next summer? Yes, say planners who have done it, saying that it’s best if you have substantial work that an intern can do. But how do you know if your needs match what an intern has to offer?

Satoru Asato, a principal at McNellis & Asato in Bloomington, Minn., hired his first intern this summer. “I always resisted having interns. We weren’t quite sure what they could actually do. We didn’t want go-fers and we didn’t want to take the time away from our staff to train summer interns. It only made sense if the business got something out of it.”

(Credit: Bloomberg News)
"I’ve heard horror stories about people just scanning documents all summer. We want interns to walk away with tools they can use when they actually enter the industry, whether it’s with us or not,” says KCR Wealth Management President Kenneth Robinson.

Asato’s mind changed when he met a potential intern who had begun his studies as an engineering student and switched to finance. “We have a proprietary lifetime and retirement income analysis tool that uses MS Excel, and I’ve always wanted to have that in Visual Basic,” he says. “Our intern was able to apply his coding skills to creating this software, which takes us from printing out pages to inputting data and pushing two buttons. That’s a win-win situation. We have something we can use once he’s gone and he got an experience applying his engineering background to finance.”

Along the way, Asato says, the intern learned Social Security basics and required distribution rules as he recoded and made the final product user-friendly and secure.

GETTING STAFF ON BOARD

In Reston, Virginia, KCR Wealth Management President Kenneth Robinson asked his staff to begin noting ideas they had for projects that are important, but not urgent. As in Asato’s practice, those projects formed the core of his interns’ work.

The firm recently converted to a different client relationship system, so “this year’s intern has been doing an audit to make sure that all our data came over correctly,” Robinson.

His interns also research portfolio designs, audit spreadsheets, gather data, learn to use the Morningstar Advisor Workstation, and sit in on client meetings. “That’s a big request,” Robinson says. “They want to interact with clients. I’ve heard horror stories about people just scanning documents all summer. We want interns to walk away with tools they can use when they actually enter the industry, whether it’s with us or not.”

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An intern who was also interested in the question spent an academic quarter researching, putting numbers together, and doing some initial modeling that confirmed Lengsfeld’s suspicions regarding individualized interest rates.

Interns pursue a similar mix of projects and shadowing at America’s Retirement Store in Greenwood Village, Colo., where senior financial adviser Peter Lengsfeld asks interns to take on research that he may not have time to do. “For example, we’ve tried to figure out the right inflation rate to use in a financial plan. How correct is the typical 3% or 3.5%? What about elements that may not exactly follow the consumer price index? We’ve considered carving out expenses and inflating them at different rates. At the end of the day, maybe your inflation rate is different than that of the person sitting next to you.”

An intern who was also interested in the question spent an academic quarter researching, putting numbers together, and doing some initial modeling that confirmed Lengsfeld’s suspicions regarding individualized interest rates.

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The intern also learned about planners’ daily tasks, shadowing planners in client meetings, Lengsfeld says, “to learn the soft skills of talking to clients about things that would otherwise be none of their business” and to begin analyzing client finances. “Those things can test whether they like this job. Do they want to deal with people or do they prefer the analysis?” Lengsfeld says.

Glenn Downing, a partner at CameronDowning in Miami, Fla., doesn’t let interns sit in on client meetings. Then again, he’s not necessarily hiring planning interns. “The work we want done is in maintaining our social media and web presence,” Downing says. “Our current intern, who is double-majoring in marketing and business, has a knack for online presence. I asked him what he thought of the website at the interview, and he started ticking off things that could be stronger. We hired him at $9 an hour and he’s doing work that has a market rate of $75 an hour. Since then we’ve given him a raise and paid holidays, and paid for him to attend a social media conference.”

The arrangement frees up Downing and his staff to do other things. “We need to be seeking out and maintaining client relationships, and that’s not intern work,” he says.

All these planners say that they’d repeat their experiences. “I’m more inclined to have interns again, as long as we can identify the right projects and the experience is meaningful on both sides,” Asato says.