Once seen as potential casualties of a pandemic-altered work environment, summer internship programs have emerged as one of the shining success stories across financial services.
Not only did most internship programs at advisory firms adapt and thrive last year, but the overall experience and lessons learned have permanently altered the way internships are likely to be managed going forward.
“Our virtual internship program helped us become a lot more comfortable with the idea of hiring people virtually, and bringing them on board to work virtually,” said Christopher Owens, senior advisor association and intern program coordinator at Wealthspire Advisors, which offered full-time jobs to four of last year’s interns.
Like a lot of firms, Wealthspire had already hired summer interns for the summer before Covid-19 forced business closures and lockdowns early last year, but they didn’t want to just abandon the program because in-person work was no longer possible.
“We decided to do it virtually and do it the best way we can, and provide some value,” said Owens. “We mapped out the schedule for the whole summer and it was all done virtually using Microsoft Teams video conferencing.”
The silver lining that many internship programs realized last year was that the interns got more attention, guidance and oversight under a virtual format than they might typically get through a traditional in-person work environment.
“What I found most fascinating is that all of us who hired interns and had responsibility for them, we paid a lot more attention to them because they were remote than we might have otherwise,” said Michael Hausknost, who oversaw the internship program last year at City National Bank in Los Angeles, which hired 50 virtual interns across multiple offices.
“Sometimes, the kiss of death for any intern is being placed at a desk and ignored, but virtual internships force you as a manager of an intern to pay proper attention to that person,” he added. “It’s a better experience for the interns and a better value for the hiring firm.”
Hausknost, who is now retired from the bank’s private wealth group, said 90% of last year’s interns never went into a National City office.
“In banking, the biggest fallacy for decades was that people thought you couldn’t work remotely, but right now 95% of staff are working from home, and that happened overnight,” he said. “I would be totally comfortable hiring interns from wherever and I’m OK if I never meet them in person.”
The Financial Planning Association turned up the volume on virtual internships last year with a structured “externship” program for nearly 1,200 college students that was so successful it is now considered a permanent FPA program.
Originally designed to provide some work experience to college students that couldn’t secure internships in the pandemic, the FPA scrambled to create a rigorous program that exposed interns to scenarios and projects at multiple participating advisory firms.
“We saw students losing internships and we wanted to solve that problem,” said Hannah Moore, owner of Guiding Wealth, who helped oversee the launch of the externship program.
“We were thinking we would be working with college juniors and seniors, but we realized we were solving for access to financial planning, and we started seeing students who didn’t even know about financial planning as a career,” she added.
The externship program was offered through 209 universities, only 86 of which had certified financial planner programs.
Unlike traditional in-person internships that might enable students to shadow financial advisers while working with clients, the FPA’s externship program operates more like an educational program with a 15-to-20-hour weekly commitment.
“Every week we would bring in advisers to present scenarios, and we would have students recreate the deliverables,” Moore said. “We started this last year thinking it was a one-year program, but the demand is far bigger than anyone expected.”
While the eight-week program was free in its inaugural year, the year-two program will require a $50 aspiring financial planner FPA membership fee and a $199 programing fee to help cover costs.
But, Moore assured, “There will be plenty of scholarships available because we don’t want money to be a hindrance to people who want to participate.”
Tom Ouellette, owner of Ouellette Wealth Advisory, sponsored three students in last year’s externship program and even sat in on a few of the educational programs.
“I was blown away by what I learned during the student loan and college planning week,” he said. “I learned a ton.”
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