Recently, I volunteered to be a guinea pig for my sister who is in dental hygiene school. When I arrived, I walked into a room with a couple dozen stations, all with aspiring hygienists in uniform, performing dental exams and cleaning teeth.
I was impressed at the level of detail my sister was required to follow throughout the appointment. I had been to the dentist many times, but took for granted everything that the hygienist did at lightning speed and without my knowledge. Here, I saw each step, many of which had to actually be described vocally as an instructor looked on.
As I lay in my chair, looking up at the ceiling, I thought, “This is really what professional training looks like.” Through trial and error, research and experimenting this profession has been molded into what it is today. All of that collective knowledge is being transmitted to these students so they can enter the workforce with the skills needed to do great, professional work.
Becoming a Financial Advisor
Then I thought about what it takes to become a stock broker or investment advisor – those are actually different things and the confusion around all the different names, job functions, and compensations schemes is a subject for another day.
Suffice it to say, the most common entry point to become a “financial advisor” requires the passing of one 6-hour exam called the Series 7, which costs $305, and another 75-minute exam called the Series 63, which costs $125.
No degree. No intensive training. Two tests.
I took the Series 7 and 63 when I was recently out of graduate school. I studied for maybe 50 hours, tops. With these licenses, I was “qualified for the solicitation, purchase and/or sale of all securities products, including corporate securities, municipal fund securities, options, direct participation programs, investment company products [mutual funds] and variable contracts [life insurance].”1
In short, I could sell investment products to the public. I could call myself a “financial advisor” if I wanted to. I could make life-altering financial recommendations to people.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work for some great firms that trained me on how to do real financial planning and put the client first, and that encouraged me to pursue the CFA® and CFP® designations. However, most entry-level jobs in this industry put a much higher focus on teaching sales than on teaching financial planning.
A Sales Job
Consider this description2 from the career site of one of the leading financial services firms:
- Five-week new-hire class
- Tech training
- Sales process
- Series 7 and 63 licensing
Products? Sales process? This looks like the type of training I got when I did door-to-door sales in college, not the type of training that a professional should receive. Where is the exhaustive and meticulous training that my sister was getting in dental hygiene school? Sure, our health is extremely important, but aren’t our personal finances almost as important?
Of course, there are organizations, like the CFP Board, the CFA Institute and The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, working to improve the level of competency of advisors, as well as public awareness of what to look for when selecting someone to help you manage your life savings.
But we need more.
Finding a Professional
My hope is that someday, the term “financial advisor” will mean something – that it will carry a similar weight that the terms doctor, dentist, and attorney carry. In order to do that, the industry needs to implement much stricter requirements, involving formal education, practical training and exams.
Until that time, all hope is not lost. There are many excellent financial advisors who have the education and experience to help you reach your goals. You just have to do some work to find them. I would recommend starting your search at one of the organizations listed above. I would also recommend looking for the following attributes:
- Fiduciary Standard – this means they are required to put your interests ahead of their own. All advisors will claim to put your needs first, but advisors who charge a commission may have an incentive to recommend products that pay them the most. I recommend a fee-only advisor. Whatever you do, insist on knowing exactly how and how much your advisor is paid.
- Certified Financial Planner® – while not required to be a financial advisor, the CFP designation is the closest thing to an industry standard we have today. To earn the CFP designation, applicants must meet the following criteria:
- Education – minimum of a bachelor’s degree
- Examination – tests a broad base of financial planning knowledge
- Experience – minimum of 6,000 hours of industry experience
- Ethics – agree to adhere to the CFP Board’s Standards of Professional Conduct
- Experience – more isn’t always better, but you want to be sure the advisor has worked with people like you. Make sure they ask questions and understand your situation, and can articulate how they have helped people like you in the past.
Don’t let the weaknesses of the financial industry keep you from reaching your financial goals. The truth is, you are much more likely to achieve financial success with the expertise and accountability that a good financial advisor can provide. Do some homework and get started today. Just like getting your teeth cleaned, maintenance is vastly superior to damage control.
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