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What Will Be Your Legacy?

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A long-ago boss often reminded us that our business obligations extended to five constituencies: our clients, our employees, our community, our business partners (vendors and suppliers) and our industry.

Most professionals accept the first four duties instinctively but fail to acknowledge that we also have a responsibility to enhance the industry in which we make our living. Perhaps advisors mistakenly believe that serving our profession just helps our competitors.

In reality, the pioneers in our business have given us many gifts including technology innovations, enhanced means of investing, effective and efficient packaging of investment solutions and new approaches to financial planning that have been transformative for our clients. Other successful leaders have elevated the standards of practice and the focus on consumer rights.

What will we pass on to the next generation of financial professionals? A cynic might outline our legacy as a distrusting investor, a suspicious regulator and a large population of college graduates who would rather do anything other than enter this business.

Financial services has brought the wrath of consumers, regulators and legislators onto itself, not just because of the malfeasance of a few, but because we stood by while schools graduated millions of students who lack a foundation in personal economics. As a result, many uninformed people have been burned by the unscrupulous and spurned by potential employers, leaving a taint on our industry’s reputation and a stagnant talent pool for our future.

I first raised this issue formally in 2014 at Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum and again that year at Pershing’s Annual Insite Conference. Allow me to share my premise.

I believe that providing students with a strong personal economic foundation will prepare them to make fiscally sound decisions throughout their adult life; that empowering the financial services community to help establish personal economics programs in high schools and grade schools will positively impact the reputation of our business; and that a focus on personal economics before college will induce many of the next generation of graduates to consider financial services as a career choice, thereby helping to relieve the chronic advisor shortage.

Consider these facts:

  • Sixty percent of states have few or no requirements for personal finance education in high school, according to the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy.

  • Only 14 states require a course in personal economics. Anecdotally, where schools make it an elective, it is difficult to find qualified teachers and sufficient students to fill the classes.

  • Yet 85% of American parents believe that financial education courses should be a requirement for high school graduation, according to DailyFinance.com.

Meanwhile, the financial services industry has become the least trusted industry in the world—and has stayed in this position since 2008. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2014, financial services companies are less trusted than oil, media, energy, alcohol, tobacco, government and automotive companies.

Further, we face a mass decline in college students choosing to enter the advice profession. Where will we find the next generation of talent when only 12% of new professionals are entering the industry directly from college? There are 50,000 fewer financial professionals today than in 2008, yet there is a growing supply of individuals and families who seek financial guidance. That’s good news for those who remain standing, but not sustainable for the long term of the business.

While daunting, these stats and survey opinions are no cause for despair. In fact, since raising this issue in public, I have been heartened by the emails and phone calls I’ve received from scores of people who are attempting to introduce financial education at their schools or who would like to know how to make an impact.

Personally, I was inspired to take action by Jim Joslin, a 40-year veteran of the wealth management profession and CEO of TFC Financial in Boston. While sitting next to each other at a practice management seminar in 2008, Jim shared the joy he received from helping his former high school in Edina, Minnesota, implement a personal finance program with roots in behavioral economics.

Bowled over by the idea, I reached out to friends still living in my former hometown of Gladstone in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I learned of a social studies teacher who wanted to deliver a similar class but was not able to obtain funding even to buy the study materials. I was excited by this opportunity to give back in a small way.

The original teacher of the program, Susan Beranek, was prepared to learn the material, teach the course and launch the first phase. When she retired a couple of years later, the class was taken over by another social studies teacher, Erika Fix, also a passionate advocate. Check out her school website for an idea of the topics she covers: www.mrsfixs.weebly.com/personal-economics.

The coursework was produced through the University of Arizona and is entitled “Take Charge Today.” The curriculum focuses on retirement solutions, credit card debt, loans and interest, investing, taxes and insurance. This one-semester class is geared to high school seniors and integrated into the regular schedule. They are committed to treating the class as an important offering rather than an extracurricular activity, in order to elevate its value and participation by students.

According to Fix, class size has increased from 15 to 40 students per semester and there is a demand to offer additional courses. Fix also reports that many participants have reduced the amount of their college loans, begun to invest in retirement plans like IRAs right out of high school and gained an interest in pursuing a career in financial services as a result of the exposure.

Before you interpret this story as a self-indulgent celebration, let me share my purpose. I wish to present others in the financial services industry with an actionable idea for making an impact through small, measured steps.

Like many, I have become a bit distrustful of large, overcomplicated and bureaucratic programs designed to change behavior. Instead I favor incrementalism, wherein contributors make small and often unplanned improvements to the experience.

My “Adopt a School” initiative has spread within Pershing. My reverse mentor, Kayla Flaten, a 25-year-old Pershing Prime account manager, has organized several of her colleagues on the Millennial Advisory Board to structure the program and share what we know about the process of adopting a high school. While quite informal at this point, here are some key ideas you can take away:

  • Contact your former high school principal or superintendent to determine their need and interest.

  • If they already have a course, ask them if they know of other schools in the district that could use some help getting such a program off the ground.

  • Work with them to identify a teacher who might take on the program as part of his or her workload.

  • Help them vet the coursework to ensure it focuses on the fundamentals of personal economics.

  • Write a check or recruit your fellow alumni in the financial services business to join you in funding the course, which may mean purchasing the teaching materials or even sponsoring the teacher and his or her continuing education.

  • Be available as a sounding board, but don’t push your way into the classroom or into the coursework; trust that the teachers are professionals who know what they are doing, and that you are the subject-matter expert who may be able to provide additional behind-the-scenes insight.

  • Check in quarterly with the teacher to evaluate successes and lessons learned.

A number of financial advisors have gone further, adopting an entire school district and making internships available to students upon their high school graduation. Some are now considering offering scholarships to study personal finance in college. The point is, you have an opportunity to impact your community while leaving an important legacy for your profession: better informed consumers and, potentially, a valuable rejuvenation of the advisor talent pool.

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