What’s it like entering the financial services sector these days? New joiners talk about their experiences as firms step up to meet the challenge of attracting talent from diverse backgrounds
by Tim Cooper
For school leaver Tao Agboola (pictured right), joining an apprentice scheme at Schroders in September 2020 was not just a career kickstart, but also a way to break down barriers by joining a “vastly male dominated sector”.
Tao secured the apprenticeship after participating in an education programme that the CISI ran with the City of London Corporation from 2017 to 2020, in which students from different London schools studied for the level 2 CISI Fundamentals of Financial Services qualification. After successfully completing this, Tao joined the Investment 20/20 programme, which led to her appointment at Schroders.
“I felt my ambitions shouldn’t be bound by stereotypes in the financial sector,” she says. “Despite recent changes promoting inclusion and diversity, I still think females and those from minority ethnic backgrounds often feel intimidated or patronised by the gendered socialisation which sends a message that perhaps there isn’t a place for them.”
One of the practical challenges Tao faced as a new joiner was trying to learn lots of information in a new and fast-paced environment. “This was especially difficult with people not being in the office due to the pandemic, so I had little opportunity to talk to experienced individuals and broaden my knowledge,” she says.
Tao encourages fellow new joiners to get involved in as many opportunities as possible to build knowledge – anything from asking questions about things you’re unsure about to volunteering for a careers event.
Since joining the Schroders apprentice scheme, Tao says her overall experience has been positive. “Everyone wants the best for you and will go above and beyond to provide the support you need to develop, which is very motivating,” she adds.
Schroders has clearly been hitting the right notes, but the financial services sector in general still faces the huge challenge of recruiting from a wider, more diverse talent pool.
Now may be the perfect time to reassess strategies, as the pandemic has prompted record numbers of people to reflect on what they want from their careers and to seek a change. This global phenomenon – dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’ – started in the summer of 2021, when numbers of people quitting their jobs in the US hit an all-time high, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And it is still going at full tilt. In the UK, for example, from March to May 2022, the number of job vacancies rose to a new record of 1.3 million, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Social inclusion and mobility
The shake-up has sparked fierce competition for talent among employers, not least in financial services where pay rises have been steady. ONS data from June 2022 shows that the finance and insurance sector had one of the largest average earnings growth rates of any UK sector, at 7.1% – well above the UK median of 5.5%.
But it’s not all about salary. Financial planners such as Paradigm Norton are increasingly looking at improving the whole benefits package and culture of the company to attract a diverse and younger workforce – and persuade those who have left the profession to come back.
Barry Horner CFP™ Chartered MCSI, chief executive of Paradigm Norton, says: “There is a lot of movement in the market, with people questioning what they want to do, and what sort of firm they want to work for. They are not overly focused on salary but rather benefits, like wellbeing days, holidays, flexi-working, hybrid working, and study leave.”
Interactions, not just transactions, are crucial to feeling connected with colleagues and managers But they also look for evidence of values such as inclusion and social mobility, says Barry. “We have to build our businesses around diversity in areas such as gender and age,” he says. “We have to rethink recruitment so we are not just getting the same people coming through. We have to look at everything from how to attract minority groups, to ensuring that our offices are accessible and inclusive for everyone, to making our advertising clear that we want people from different backgrounds.”
This will benefit companies by bringing in fresh perspectives and avoids creating “echo chambers” of similar views, he adds.
The experience of Scotland-based Lindsey Docherty (pictured left), assistant financial planner at CISI accredited financial planning firm Mazars, sums up many of these issues. She recently returned to financial services after a break working in the third sector.
Her previous experience in operations at a large investment firm meant that Mazars placed her straight into year three of their four-year graduate scheme. She aims to become a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional within two years.
“The pandemic was an opportunity to rethink my career,” says Lindsey. She became interested in Mazars when she saw that “the website shows lots of work in inclusivity and social mobility”. She was further encouraged when she saw inclusive routes to application for school leavers, apprenticeships and return to work programmes, meaning “applicants don’t perceive any barriers and think it’s not for them”.
This impression was reinforced through the application and interview process. “For example, before the interviews, I was given a ‘buddy’ to get an honest perspective from within the organisation. He was on the graduate programme and talked to me about Mazars, the programme and the assessment centre, to assuage my nerves.”
Lindsey’s main advice to new joiners is to not be afraid to ask questions. This enables you to “learn more, build connections, and develop much quicker”.
Another way for an employer to broaden their talent pool is to attract people from other professions.
Morgan Sarraf CFP® (pictured right), based in Maryland, US, joined fiduciary financial advisers Hightower Bethesda after an eight-year career in the design industry. She started as a planner analyst in March 2020 and has since become associate director of financial planning and obtained the globally recognised CFP certification.
Morgan says: “In my previous career, I was creating and building relationships, digging into people’s goals and motivations, so it was similar to financial planning in some ways. However, it was long hours. Hightower offered more reasonable hours, a clearer schedule and an upward career trajectory. Plus it is family friendly and offers some flexibility.”
For employers, hiring career changers can require some patience and commitment. “For me to change careers took lots of trust-building on both sides,” Morgan says. “Each person is changing careers for a different reason, so find out what that is and play to your strengths.
“Be willing to invest in talent. It’s a big risk leaving a secure, familiar position. But it made me feel good that Hightower were willing to invest in me and that made me push harder. Wherever you are in the world, human nature is the same and employee relationships are about finding what makes that person tick and where your values align.”
People not processes
McKinsey surveyed nearly 6,000 employees globally from multiple sectors to better understand what was driving the wave of resignations. The research, published in September 2021, suggests meaningful workplace interactions, not just transactions (like pay increases or bonuses) are crucial to feeling connected with colleagues and managers. Remote and hybrid working plays an important part in job satisfaction too, with many resigning employees saying they want to work from home so they can have more flexibility to care for family members (45%).
McKinsey’s research uncovers several disconnects between employees and employers, including the relational versus transactional disconnect mentioned above. In particular, the top three reasons for quitting are found to be:
- Employees do not feel valued by their organisations (54%)
- Employees do not feel valued by their managers (52%)
- Employees do not feel a sense of belonging at work (51%), with minority ethnic groups feeling a lower sense of belonging compared to white counterparts
McKinsey suggests that to address this, companies should make sure they have inspiring, motivating leaders and managers who are experienced and trained in running remote or hybrid models.
According to the report, if your only response is to increase compensation, that says to workers that your relationship with them is purely transactional. Instead, companies should look at the whole person, for example by aligning benefits more with homeworking and family needs. The report cites the example of Californian clothing firm Patagonia, which has retained 100% of employees who are new mothers by providing on-site childcare and other benefits for parents.
Remote working challenges
UK-based Michael McCroddan, founder and CEO of multi family office Alexander Advisory, says financial services has an opportunity to recruit a new generation of younger, digitally native workers.
“Almost all financial advisers from my era came to this profession by accident rather than design,” he says. “Our advantages were being able to talk face-to-face to people rather than communicating in today’s environment of social media, technology and remote working. Future entrants must be IT savvy, good at all aspects of social media, and helping clients access their portfolios remotely with safeguards and strong security. The pandemic has accelerated this irreversible trend."
Companies should make sure they have inspiring, motivating leaders and managers who are experienced and trained in running remote or hybrid models Some 68% of workers now prefer a hybrid working model, according to global consortium Future Forum’s latest survey of knowledge workers in Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US. In addition, 95% of respondents say they want flexibility when they work.
However, working from home does create challenges, according to the UK Census 2021, which shows that remote workers put in longer hours but are much less likely to be promoted or receive bonuses.
Manchester-based Adam Walker, a trainee paraplanner at CISI accredited financial planning firm Depledge Strategic Wealth Management, joined the firm after working in sales for six years. He says the change to remote working is good for financial services.
“The sector was a bit ‘old school’ but since Covid-19, lots of companies have adopted hybrid working and plenty are benefiting from it,” says Adam. “I couldn’t go back to five days in an office!”
Adam says the key to making remote and hybrid systems work is for employers to be trusting and “always there” with support. “With workloads, it’s easy to feel lost, but the best employers like Depledge have a good support bubble in which everyone is always happy to help,” he says.
Tao, who completed the CISI Fundamentals of Financial Services qualification while still at sixth form college, says: “A hybrid approach gives more flexibility for personal lives, which contributes heavily to mental health while working from home. My advice for employers is to provide lots of support and educational and personal development opportunities. Always let your employees know they are at the forefront of everything.”
Lindsey points out that remote learning is not necessarily lower quality. “The negative of remote working is that there isn’t somebody across a desk that you can ask questions and learn from,” she says. “But it also means you have access to everybody at all times.”
Visible career path
Emily Bourlet is another school leaver who joined financial services in September 2021 – as a trainee paraplanner in her family’s CISI accredited financial planning firm Bourlet Consulting. She says financial services still faces a challenge around awareness.
“Financial planning is still a bit hidden,” she says. “Unless you have some connection to the profession, it is unlikely people know about or understand the job. However, I was attracted by the need for young female financial planners, and the chance to meet lots of people with different backgrounds.”
Emily, whose goal is to move to a client-facing role and obtain CFP certification, advises employers to make sure there is a visible career path for all types of employees. They should also support and allow time for personal development and exam study, and provide good technology to support daily tasks, she says.
Oliver Simmonds ACSI, technical assistant to the client services team at CISI accredited financial planning firm Penguin Wealth, agrees that financial planning is not a well known career path. “I only found out about the profession after spending many hours searching for financial jobs based on my desired responsibilities”, he says.
Oliver then took the initiative by calling financial planning firms looking for an opportunity, impressing Craig Palfrey CFP™ Chartered MCSI, director at Penguin, with his proactive approach. Since joining Penguin Wealth in April 2021, Oliver has been sprinting along the pathway to achieve CFP certification, and will be taking his CISI level 6 Advanced Financial Planning exam in September 2022. He is “very determined” and studies after work and on weekends.
Before joining Penguin Wealth, he was in an administrative role at another financial services firm. He found this to be “very repetitive” with a “lack of challenges and opportunities to develop”, unlike his role at Penguin, where he spends the “majority of [his] working day processing cases, conducting financial research, and writing suitability letters for financial planning recommendations”.
Oliver’s advice to new joiners from his “short experience to date” is to “set an end career goal based on the lifestyle you want to achieve and the responsibilities that will allow you to enjoy the career you have chosen. To be in a position where you feel you are stagnating is incredibly demoralising”.
His advice to employers is to give those in administrative roles “more opportunities for advancement and more diversified workloads”.
And it’s not just the workloads that need to be diverse, as pointed out by interviewees in this piece.
The Financial Conduct Authority's 2021 report on Diversity and inclusion in the financial sector shows companies are waking up to these issues and making progress in addressing them. It looks at several initiatives aiming to promote diversity, including the Women in Finance Charter and the Task Force for Socio-Economic Diversity in UK Financial Services Sectors.
The report said more work is needed on diversity at senior management level, but diversity is improving among new joiners. But, says Tao, it’s also up to new recruits to assert themselves and make sure their voices are heard.
“For anyone thinking about joining financial services – do it!” she adds. “Back yourself and your abilities, and keep persevering. You might surprise yourself on how capable you are. Also, be open-minded and curious to learn. It shows character and helps to build your professional brand.”
CISI Careers in Finance initiative
Later this year, the Institute we will be releasing an updated interactive website that will serve as an information hub for careers in finance. This includes, and is not limited to, the different ways to enter a career in finance, the variety of roles available, checklists of actions that can be taken to enhance your CV, the impact that financial services has on the environment, wider society and more.
Ahead of the launch of its initiative, the Institute spoke to university students considering a career in financial services about their view of the sector, and perceived challenges. Here’s what several of them had to say:
• “When looking for a placement, I applied to some major big organisations. Going through the recruitment process, I found out that it’s really competitive, and that many organisations look for extroverted people. I’m worried about getting a job!”
• “I’d like to work for a company that's ethical, that has an awareness when it comes to both domestic and international issues. If I’m relating this to asset management, then yes I believe investment decisions based on ethics are very important.”
• “It's tough to be applying for jobs and trying to maintain educational focus at the same time.”