As Head of the Personal Financial Planning Department at Kansas State University, I feel for students across the country who have worked hard over the past academic year to excel in their classes and learn the fundamentals of financial planning. I saw firsthand the disappointment many felt as they learned their opportunity to continue this learning in the real world through internships melted away due to circumstances out of anyone’s control. And I feel for them further as there is a strong likelihood that the continued battle with COVID-19 will impact their next academic year beginning this fall.
I feel for them because, like them and the many professionals who comprise the financial planning profession, we were in their shoes. We experienced the academic rigor of college, worked hard in our studies, and knew there was the possibility of applying what we learned through in-person internships. Over the years, there have been instances of disruption to the traditional internship model, like the one that students faced during the 2008 financial crisis. But this time is different. While firms today cope with the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, there is also the serious health implications and the need for social distancing that must be considered. For many firms, face-to-face internships were simply not in the cards this summer and may not be for the foreseeable future.
Firms have rightly focused their time and attention on ensuring their clients are served, their businesses remain solvent, and their employees continue to be gainfully employed. Those should absolutely be the priority. Financial planners are, after all, operating businesses.
Yet, with every challenge comes opportunity.
While some financial planning firms and professionals have stayed true to their processes, provide hard copies of financial plans, and meet almost exclusively with clients in-person, many have embraced new technologies. Those firms are now meeting with clients virtually, providing online portals for clients to access their financial plans and investment accounts, and more. There is even a whole new approach of completely virtual firms that render the need for brick-and-mortar office locations unnecessary. And while most consumers value a combination of high-tech and high-touch financial advice, the next generation of financial services consumers (especially millennials) are embracing available technology to learn about—and manage—their finances.
The pandemic forced the hand of many firms to adjust quickly, without providing organizations the luxury of rethinking the internship experience. At the Financial Planning Association, we worked with Hannah Moore, a Certified Financial Planner, to design and launch the FPA Virtual Externship. This program not only helped replace the summer internship experience for hundreds of students and career-changers but also created a mechanism to expose students to how dozens of different professionals do financial planning. The program was made possible through countless hours of planning and execution by Moore, FPA staff, many volunteers from our community, and critical partners like TD Ameritrade Institutional, eMoney Advisor, and Morningstar. This program demonstrated the technology to reinvent internships and interaction with firms is there, but it is on the shoulders of practitioners, firms, and the academic community to make the possibilities a reality.
And let’s be clear, there is well-defined value to firms that embrace virtual internships.
Imagine a scenario where you have access to one of the best academic programs in the country in your field, with relatively few local firms that are providing directly relatable experience. What if you could, with limited competition, carve out the cream of the crop, have students learn more about your firm, and conduct extended job interviews—all while receiving valuable productivity for your firm? For early adopters, virtual internships (especially those conducted in the fall and spring) would provide that opportunity at Kansas State, as well as many other academic programs across the country.
The technology has been there to change how we approach programs like internships, but it took COVID-19 for us to realize the opportunity that they present— for both students and firms. It just makes business sense.
Martin C. Seay, Ph.D., CFP, is the 2020 President of the Financial Planning Association (FPA) and is head of the Personal Financial Planning Department at Kansas State University.