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  • by Kate Healy
  • Managing Director, Generation Next, TD Ameritrade Institutional

AdvoKate: Internships, an inside view

By now, you know that I believe internships are one of the most meaningful ways to bring much-needed NextGen talent to the RIA industry. I’ve used data, research, surveys — anything I could get my hands on — to help tell this story.

Now I’m bringing insight straight from people who know, first-hand, just how important internships are – not only to the future of the industry, but to your business. I reached out to two leaders at firms with fantastic, long-standing internship programs: Heather Fortner from SignatureFD, LLC in Atlanta and Lawrence Becker from JNBA Financial Advisors in Minneapolis.

While both are geographically fortunate to have multiple local colleges and universities with robust financial planning programs from which to source talent, the insight they share can benefit someone looking to start or beef up an internship experience.

The sweet spot: Where value and skills overlap

Heather Fortner is SignatureFD’s Chief Compliance Officer and Chief Operating Officer. She reflects on her own unique career path as she and others carefully plan the firm’s internships.  Like many of us, Heather started as an intern. Unsure whether a career in financial planning was the right step for her, she landed an internship at a wealth management firm strong in financial planning to test the waters. It worked out, and they hired her full time after graduation.

After two years of financial planning, her firm started a trust company and asked Heather, who had a strong skillset in operations and technology, to move to the trust side of the business. Of course, she said yes. Making the most of this opportunity, she soaked up all the knowledge she could, but something was lacking for her. She missed working closely with clients.

Heather returned to client service and pursued a Master’s degree in Professional Counseling at night. With some self-reflection and exposure to all angles of the industry, she knew she should focus on what she’s passionate about. Money can be a difficult topic for families, so having deep conflict and mediation skills would enable her to bring value in both the technical and relationship areas.

Heather believes that finding where your skills and talents overlap is where your passion lies. And when you are passionate about your work, it comes through to clients. That’s why SignatureFD makes sure interns have exposure to both the investment and planning sides of the firm.

At SignatureFD, interns will run through case studies and experience what it’s really like to work there. “We assign work that’s valuable — not busy work,” Heather said. “Interns work on projects intended to support the rest of the team and add value.”

Close college ties

SignatureFD works with the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Emory University. Several members of the SignatureFD team are alumni of these programs and are very involved with their boards. They participate in recruiting days.

Heather suggested I touch base with a student from University of Georgia (spoiler alert – we already knew her as a 2017 NextGen scholarship winner!)

Audrey Mitchell, a Junior, is triple-majoring (wow!) in Financial Planning, Housing Management and Policy, and Consumer Economics. She had the opportunity to intern at SignatureFD last summer. Audrey shared that she was pleasantly surprised at how eager everyone was to help her and all the interns.

“I didn’t quite know what to expect since this was my first internship,” Audrey said. “However, from day one, it was clear how committed the firm was to nurturing and cultivating the future generation of financial planners. I also found out about the TD Ameritrade NextGen RIA Scholarship through Doug Liptak, a co-founder of the firm. This led me all the way to New York and a scholarship. That was a wonderful surprise that I definitely was not expecting!”

Audrey told us, “My experience as a planning intern was phenomenal. The culture of the firm promotes growth in all their employees, with a special emphasis on the interns. Everyone made sure that they were available for help, with knowledge on a subject, or just to chat. From the founders to the new hires, I felt very welcomed and included. I learned, grew, and developed as a future financial planner.”

Does Audrey plan to pursue a career in financial planning? Yes! She told us, “My time at SignatureFD affirmed my pursuit of financial planning in the best ways possible. My supervisors became role models and mentors, and they exemplify what success in the field looks like. The firm excels in empowering their clients to live a great life, and they do the same for their employees. I was able to experience just a taste of what a future in financial planning can look like, and I can’t wait to step full-time into such an exciting career.”

What an inspirational experience. Thank you to Audrey for sharing her story and to Heather and everyone at SignatureFD for creating such a great environment for NextGen planners.

Interns can zero in on inefficiencies

Larry Becker is the Operations and Compliance Manager at JNBA Financial Advisors. A former intern himself while attending college outside of Chicago, Larry moved to the Twin Cities 10 years ago and began working at JNBA. Of the many hats he wears, one of his favorites is running the firm’s internship program. He says that during the three months the interns are here over the summer, the whole vibe of the office changes. Everyone feeds off the infusion of energy they bring.

The greater Minneapolis area is ripe with NextGen talent, thanks in part to their proximity to and relationship with University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD). The firm’s CEO, Richard Brown, is a Senior Fellow at UMD and employees have frequently supported the school’s learning lab.

Fun fact: We sponsored the initial Learning Lab in 2010, starting us on our journey to support and build the next generation!

The job posting sites at the network of University of Minnesota schools have served as a great resource for candidates. After an initial process of enrolling JNBA on the sites and crafting job postings, the resources continue to be a great pipeline of intern talent from many disciplines, not just finance. If you are looking to add an intern to your office, you should see if your local colleges have such resources. These job sites could be a beneficial tool for a firm that may not be geographically close to great colleges and universities.

What’s a typical project for an intern? Larry says they try to get bigger projects done with the help of intern-power. For example, over the last several summers, the 40-year-old firm had an initiative to go paperless. Imagine how much paper a firm accumulates over four decades!

JNBA also creates a capstone project that emulates a real-life financial planning scenario for the interns to sink their teeth into by building a study focusing on the six core areas of financial planning.  In addition, Larry recalls an intern who asked if he could “play around” and try something he’d recently learned in Excel to automate an otherwise time-consuming project. Larry was impressed not only with the intern’s spreadsheet savvy, but also the power of collaboration in his efforts.

“We believe in providing opportunity for interns to work with all team members,” said Larry. “They sit in on high-level meetings and team lunches. They understand client service but benefit more when they see it in action. Having interns reminds us of the next generation and forces us to take a closer look at how and why we do things a certain way. Sometimes it’s an intern who can show us a new and potentially better process. It’s important to be open to change.”

Net positive for the bottom line

While there’s an intangible, holistic benefit to having a solid internship program, we also have numbers to support the effort. Larry shared that the firm has had 40 interns over the last eight years. Ten of them turned into full time employees. This is an amazing stat when you consider the time and energy saved from not needing to search for new hires the traditional way.

An internship is like a  three-month orientation and trial run. Candidates can see if both the profession and the firm are good fits and whether they want to pursue a full-time opportunity with JNBA. “We can see if they are a good fit with our culture, capabilities, and brand,” Larry added. This organic growth allows for enhanced employee retention and becomes a very real money and time saver.

Time for action

While many students have already accepted their summer internships (I told you it was competitive!), you can also consider interns during breaks and, if local, part time during the school year.  However and whenever you hire an intern to bring passion, innovation and energy into your office, here’s how you can get started.

• National LINC: Did you just return from National LINC, too? Reach out to any NextGen contacts you made. And be sure to let us know if these contacts translate into internships. You know I love hearing your success stories.
• Reach out to your local college/university: See if they have an online job board or other resources to connect you to talent.
• Access the RIA NextGen Career Exchange: Think of it as our own networking service connecting RIAs with the right NextGen talent for their firm.

Keep me posted. I would love to hear about your new or improved internship program! @KateHealy_TDA#RIANextGen


TD Ameritrade, SignatureFD and JNBA Financial Advisors are separate and unaffiliated companies, and are not responsible for each other’s policies or services.

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