Remember the spring of your senior year of college? There was the scramble of career fairs and interviews, the pressure to write resumes while juggling the usual crush of exams, and all your parents’ friends asking if you’d found a job yet. And there were a zillion questions swirling in your head: What kind of job should you look for? What companies should you interview with? How could you improve your chances for a successful career? What should you expect during your first year on the job? How would you know the right offer when it came along?

Right about now, a crop of 22-year-old financial planning majors across the country are standing in the middle of their dorm rooms, surrounded by a sea of cover letters, job postings, and pizza boxes, scratching their heads over these very questions. To get answers, we could have asked industry graybeards to hand down pearls of wisdom from their leather-backed chairs. But we decided we’d get a more accurate perspective by asking young planners who successfully joined the field only a few years ago themselves–planners like 25-year-old James Manjane of Chicago, 24-year-old Kathryn Kurre of Columbia, Maryland, and Raj Choksi, 30, of Atlanta.

If you’re young or simply new to the profession, the following profiles should answer some of the career questions that have been keeping you awake at night. If you’re an experienced planner aiming to hire a fresh-faced grad (or wondering if you should), these stories will help you understand what today’s young planners are looking for in an employer and how they might successfully fit into your firm’s future. And even if you’re not looking to hire, read on: These profiles cast a light on the changing nature of your own profession, and you’d do well to pay heed. These young planners are young and sometimes idealistic, but they’re also smart and tech-savvy, and they hold college degrees in financial planning–degrees that didn’t even exist when many of the industry’s pioneers got their start. They’re not sidling in from another field and struggling with transition; they knew by the time they graduated that they wanted to be a financial planners, and they’ve jumped in with both feet.

And yet each of the three has chosen a different path in the pursuit of a successful financial planning career: One founded his own firm, another works for a mid-sized RIA, and another works at a trust bank with 8,000 employees.

JAMES MANJANE, The Trust Company Approach

James Manjane was three years into an electrical engineering degree at Texas Tech University before he discovered that ohms and amps weren’t much fun after all. “I liked numbers, but I also wanted to work with people, and you don’t do that very much in engineering,” he says. He lost almost a year’s worth of credits by changing majors, but by the time he graduated in December 2000, he knew he’d made the right choice.

Thanks to the Texas Tech program’s internship requirements, Manjane stepped off the stage at commencement not only with a diploma, but also with hands-on experience at two separate financial services firms, Northern Trust of Chicago and CFP & S of Lubbock, Texas. The internships gave him an edge over other job applicants at many firms, but particularly at Northern Trust, since the firm’s employees had already had an opportunity to see him in action during his internship. The Chicago firm hired Manjane immediately after graduation in 2000, and he’s been there since.

Besides the obvious foot-in-the-door factor, the 25-year-old Manjane says he benefited from his internships because they allowed him to dip a toe in different kinds of financial services work before plunging into a long-term position. “Internships allow you to weed out what you think you’ll like doing from what you’ll actually like doing,” he says. “When I came up here for my internship, working on the corporate and institutional side sounded like a great idea, but when I came and saw what was actually involved, I found out it wasn’t something I would have wanted to do for more than those few months.” Realizing this, he made contacts in other departments at Northern Trust. When he returned as a full-time employee, he joined the private banking department instead, and about six months ago transferred to the financial planning department.

The short-term nature of internships lends itself to experimentation, so try out all different kinds of firms while you’re still in school, says Manjane. He has certainly taken his own advice, since his two internship providers differed in size by 7,993 employees. “Once you get out of school and take a job, now you’re away from your professors and contacts, and it’s very difficult to switch,” he says. “At school, you might have four, five, six companies come to interview you right on campus. Once you’re out, you don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Manjane says he finally settled on a large firm over a small firm because Northern Trust “offered such a broad base of products, and I figured I would gain a broader understanding of financial planning because of it.” Still, he notes, a smaller firm with fewer resources might offer other advantages, such as the opportunity to wear many hats and take on more responsibilities earlier.

While it might have been tempting to stake everything on his internship brownie points and interview only with Northern Trust for a full-time position, Manjane interviewed with firms across the country. He made a conscious effort to search out firms that worked with different clienteles that appealed to him. “You should pick groups that you could see yourself working with for a long time, or that you could bring a certain perspective to–like if your family owned a small business, you could be an asset to a firm that works with small business owners,” he says. Interestingly, Manjane also suggests interviewing with companies that compete with each other. When Manjane was interviewing with Northern Trust, he was also in conversations with State Street Bank. “It’s not that you want to pit one against another,” he says, “but I think if they’re both in the same local market, it can work to your advantage.”

Once a new position is secured, begin trolling for a mentor, he adds. You don’t have to do a nationwide search; in fact, the likeliest mentors are people right under the same roof at your new firm. In Manjane’s case, it was a seasoned veteran of the private banking industry who seemed interested in helping the young man gain new experience. Once he gained his mentor’s trust, he was allowed to meet directly with clients and even take the lead on certain cases–an unusual amount of responsibility for a new hire in the private banking department. “Find someone who is seasoned in the industry and latch on to them and learn as much as you can from them, even if they’re not working directly with you in your department,” advises Manjane. “That person can teach you a lot, and can also be your biggest fan.”

Because he receives a straight salary, Manjane doesn’t have to worry about the roller-coaster income stream that many new planners struggle with. As he moves up in the department, he’ll continue to receive a base salary, but will become eligible for bonuses based on the fee revenue generated by his clients.

While working in private banking, Manjane had no trouble with clients’ raising eyebrows about his youth. “In banking, you don’t really get ‘Jeez, this guy’s young!’ because you’re the one that’s underwriting the loan they want. They’re asking you for something,” he says. Now that he’s in financial planning, however, “they have the money and you’re trying to tell them what to do with it,” he says, so it’s possible they might be more inclined to object to his age. He can’t say for sure, though, because he hasn’t had the opportunity to meet with clients yet.

Fearful that clients will react negatively to a youthful planner, Northern Trust’s financial planning department (the department Manjane transferred into six months ago) keeps neophyte planners behind the scenes for some time before coming face-to-face with a client–and if there were one thing Manjane could change about his current job, it would be this. At present, Manjane spends most of his time generating financial plans and researching mutual funds and stocks, and no date has yet been set for his first meeting with a financial planning client. “Client contact is something I really have my eye on,” he says. “Because once you know how to generate plans, you know how to generate plans. It’s coming up with solutions and working with people that’s the exciting part–and that’s the part that I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet.”

Manjane says that some of his peers at other firms face similar frustration at having to wait for face-to-face client contact although they feel they’re ready. Part of the problem, he suggests, may be that industry veterans don’t realize what’s being taught in financial planning college degree programs, and thus underestimate what young planners already know by the time they show up for their first day of work. “When [the older planners] were starting out, there weren’t specific degrees to teach you financial planning, so I think they feel like you have to go through this long process before you can be in front of clients,” he says. “And I don’t necessarily think that’s accurate.”

KATHRYN KURRE, The Mid-Sized RIA Option

Kathryn Kurre is the kind of person you have nightmares about meeting at your college reunion. In the two years since she graduated from Virginia Tech, she has landed a job in her chosen field, passed her CFP certification exam, joined a rowing team, and run not one, but two, marathons. She’s well-spoken and polished; unfortunately, she’s also friendly and down-to-earth, so her old classmates can’t even have the satisfaction of disliking her.

Like Manjane, the 24-year-old Kurre (pronounce “curry”) started her college career aiming to become something other than a financial planner: She wanted to be a veterinarian. At the end of her sophomore year as a biology major, however, an advisor gave a speech to one of her classes about financial planning. “I thought, ‘Hey, that really sounds like something I’d like to do,’” she says, “‘since I’d get to work with people but also be in the business field as well.’”

Kurre, whose soft accent turns the name of her native state into “Tinnissee,” didn’t waste any time diving into her new major. She joined the student chapter of the FPA at Virginia Tech, and by graduation had already attended two FPA national conferences. By attending as a student volunteer, she got in free, in exchange for volunteering for the FPA at the conventions. Despite the cavernous facilities and thousands of attendees, Kurre managed not only to make contacts with a firm she liked at the 1999 conference, but to meet with the same firm at the 2000 conference. Perhaps Kurre should be the poster child for the benefits of networking, because she was hired by that same firm, Strategic Wealth Management, LLC, of Columbia, Maryland, immediately after graduation and works there today.

The FPA also provided her with additional networking opportunities. In early 2001, Kurre’s employer paid for her to attend the FPA’s residency program for new planners, a weeklong experience that Kurre recommends highly. “Everybody was so supportive, and they really wanted to help us out in any way they could,” she says. “I still keep in touch with the people I attended with. It’s a great support group, and they’re good people to network with, too.” Kurre also hopes to become more involved with her local FPA chapter in the near future.

But new planners don’t need to attend an official event in order to network, she notes. “Everybody is very open in this profession, and they’d like to see it grow, so they’re very excited to see young people get involved,” she says. If you’re a financial planning major in need of advice, Kurre suggests simply calling up a planner in your area and asking them if they’d be willing to meet with you. “Most people are very open and really eager to help,” she says.

Kurre says the greatest challenge for many of her peers is passing the CFP exam. Her best Christmas present for 2002 was receiving word that she passed the exam, which she’d taken in November. Now all she has to do is complete the three-year work requirement and she’ll be a full-fledged CFP.

She hasn’t run into any clients who think she’s too young to manage their affairs, but that’s because, like Manjane, she’s still working behind the scenes. She spends most of her time acting as an assistant to CFP Jim Griesser of Strategic Wealth Management, working on financial plans, opening accounts, reviewing portfolios, and pulling together materials for his meetings with clients. “At my firm, you have to be a CFP to meet with clients, so I work more in the back room now,” she says. “I think that’s fairly common for recent graduates at my level, but I really am looking forward to getting more involved with the clients, and having that one-on-one contact with them.”

At Strategic Wealth Management, all of the employees receive a salary, period. There are no commissions, and no one receives extra compensation for bringing in a new client, she says. Kurre’s decision to work for a fee-only firm was a conscious choice. During college, she had two internships, one at a fee-only firm and one at a commission-based firm, and she determined that she preferred a fee-only arrangement. That preference skewed her options toward smaller firms, but she didn’t want to work for a firm that was too small, either. “I wanted to work for a firm that was bigger than just me and another planner, so that there would be room to grow, so the job could possibly grow as I grew and learned more,” she says. “I felt that there would be more flexibility in the career path with a larger firm.” The 12-member Strategic Wealth Management seemed to fit the bill.

Kurre believes her bachelor’s degree and her internships have prepared her well for her current job, but she’s been surprised at which classes have turned out to be the most useful. “I didn’t realize how important technical writing would be, but it plays a very, very large role in what I do on a daily basis,” she says. “Most people coming into this field probably think it’s more math and calculations, but I think that technical writing is really a vital skill.” Kurre encourages all financial planning majors to seek out such a class, even if it’s not required. “When you send out a financial plan, you want to be step-by-step, to the point, very clear, and easy to read,” she says. “The course taught me how to present information so that it is easy to follow.”

RAJ CHOKSI, The B/D Rep

Raj Choksi has a great comeback for prospects who think he’s too young to manage their financial affairs. “Do you really want a planner who’s going to retire when you do?” Sure, you might get along great with someone who’s your age, he points out, but when you retire–right when your financial affairs need the most attention, right when you’re making a series of complicated transactions and decisions and rollovers–do you really want to find your planner in a party hat at his own retirement bash, leaving you to hand off your entire financial life to somebody new?

Some prospects are unmoved by this argument, but enough people have bought it to keep Niagara Financial Advisors of Atlanta, co-owned by 30-year-old Choksi and partner Paul Kindzia, in business. The partners opened the firm after earning M.B.A.’s in financial planning from Georgia State University in May 2001. (They are registered reps for Triad Advisors, Inc., a broker/dealer based in Norcross, Georgia.) Their clients range in age from 35 to 65, with most over the age of 40.

The partners did have the benefit of pre-existing client bases that they had built up through their previous occupation as accountants. Still, the start-up process was a rocky one. “When you come out of school with a degree, all you have is a degree,” says Choksi. “You have to get all your licenses, get your company set up, set up your e-mail and Web site. It’s not only time-consuming, but very expensive. Most people can’t do it if they’re just starting out cold” without existing clients.

For support, Choksi was able to rely on other local graduates of the Georgia State M.B.A. program, who meet quarterly to exchange leads and ideas. (He has no fear that other graduates will steal prospective clients, by the way. As he puts it, “The population of Atlanta is four million. There’s plenty of work!”) He also reads widely, and has joined the Financial Planning Association. “The FPA is definitely a good resource, and I would also recommend reading any industry periodical you can get your hands on,” he says.

Choksi goes back to Georgia State regularly, now as a guest speaker who talks to classes about what it’s like “out there.” What do the students want to know? “The number-one question is always, ‘Is this a sales job? Is this a sales industry, or can you go out and get a job that pays a salary?’” he says. The answer is yes and no, he tells them. “Most firms pay a very small base salary, and then the rest is driven by what your production is, not so much commissions as earning a percentage of the fee charged on assets under management,” he says. In his own firm, which garners revenues from both fees and commissions, Choksi pays himself a salary, and then receives commissions on top of that for the sale of some insurance and securities products.

The second most common question is the career-day standby: “What is the most challenging part of your job?” According to Choksi, the answer to that is finding the right mix of clients for your firm, and marketing your services to those clients. You have to find people who want your services, then figure out which clients within that group you want to work with, and then determine how to get those desired clients to want to work with you. “Probably 30%-40% of my day relates to going after marketing and sales opportunities,” he says.

For Choksi, the ideal clients are measured not by their income or net worth, but by their savings potential. For instance, if Client A is 35 years old and has saved $75,000 over the past year, he is a much better prospect in Choksi’s eyes than Client B, who, despite her enormous income over a 30-year medical career, has saved a grand total of $100,000. “We don’t say, ‘Hey, you have to make X dollars for us to take you on as a client.’ We want to look at what their propensity is to save.”

Having launched his own firm, Choksi has never hunted for a job at a financial planning firm, but he has clear ideas about what other young planners should look for. “The first thing I would look for is what kind of training and support they provide, and what kind of mentoring they have,” says Choksi, adding that he himself has a mentor at another firm. It’s also a good idea to ask how long other new hires have stuck around, since “their attrition rate tells you how successful new people generally are at the firm.” It’s still a good idea not to start an interview with, “So, how much will I be raking in?” but it is important to understand whether you’d be compensated by fees or commissions (or both) at a particular firm. Choksi also recommends asking about the types of clients the firm typically attracts, so you can be sure you’ll be working with clients who interest you.

The Common Thread

Besides the obvious similarity in age, it’s instructive to note what James Manjane, Kathryn Kurre, and Raj Choksi have in common. Whether it was an electrical engineer, veterinarian, or accountant, they all started (and in one case even finished) college thinking they wanted to become something other than a financial planner. They all completed undergraduate or graduate programs in financial planning; they’re all CFPs or about to be. They consider it a given that they should be comfortable with computers, and they all express at least some preference for fee-based compensation (with one of them, Kurre, unwilling to even consider working at a commission-based firm). They’re also eager to try out networking opportunities. Client contact is a major draw for all of them; if they don’t have such contact already, they’re chomping at the bit to begin. And whether it’s owning their own firm or just “owning” their own clients or projects, they’re eager for independence and the opportunity to show their stuff–provided, of course, that there’s a friendly mentor around to call upon when needed.

If you’re thinking of adding a young planner to your staff, consider these traits as you conduct your search and work to attract the right candidate. And if you’re a young planner-to-be wading through job postings and drowning in cover letters, take heart: These young planners made it. So can you.