Advisory firms look to combat the 'brain drain'

They're entrepreneurial. They like to be challenged. And, above all else, millennials want to be heard.

Such are among the insights gleaned from the reverse mentor program global financial solutions provider Pershing, LLC, in which new recruits are paired with senior executives and encouraged to contribute ideas on everything from brand strategy to opportunities for professional growth.

Millennials instructed
Eric Audras | PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections | Getty Images

"Millenials are now coaching our executive committee members who may be 30 or 40 years older, and the outcome has been a higher level of engagement by young employees and true insight for our firm," said Mark Tibergien, CEO of the company's business unit, Pershing Advisor Solutions.

His own 20-something mentor, in fact, whom he interacts with daily, was quick to note his social media shortcomings.

"I was reluctant to do anything with social media, but my mentor took one look at my Twitter page and pointed out that I have an egg for a picture," said Tibergien, referring to the standard placeholder for those who fail to post a profile picture. "Now I have a profile shot and even a statement about what my passions are.

"But the knowledge we have gained from our reverse mentoring program goes way beyond social media," he added.

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Indeed, the most profound impact has been the reeducation of senior executives on how to communicate more effectively with the next generation of talent and successfully integrate them into their firm, said Tibergien.

That's no small victory, given the brain drain that threatens the industry.

A survey this year by financial services research firm Cerulli Associates found that 32 percent of financial advisors in the U.S. plan to exit the business within the next 10 years. And the industry isn't recruiting heavily enough to replace them—not by a long shot.

After the financial crisis of 2008, many of the big broker-dealer firms cut back on new advisor development in a bid to save cash. They have since relied on recruiting experienced advisors from other firms.

Millennials lack skills needed in today's job market
Millennials lack skills needed in today's job market   

As a result, the average age of advisors today is roughly 51, and only 11 percent of all advisors are younger than 35, Cerulli reports.

"When you look at those numbers, they're fairly disconcerting," said Tibergien, noting there are 50,000 fewer financial professionals today than there were in 2008.

"We've done a poor job over the last 20 years of replenishing the population of people serving clients, which is odd when you consider that the absolute number of clients has increased."

To combat the shortage of new talent and meet the needs of its increasingly diverse client base, Exencial Wealth Advisors has turned its own recruiting practices on its ear.

The firm's principals, John Burns and Jerry Georgopoulos, no longer rely on the "churn and burn" environment of the wire house brokerage firms, in which young employees often report feeling expendable, but instead consider all applicants based on individual merit.

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Burns said his firm values attitude and potential above prior experience or even credentials. Its newly recruited talent team includes a minister's son, an engineer, an actuary and even a former client.

Financial advisory firms are also promoting professional growth to keep their youngest employees motivated and improve retention.

For its part, Cerulli encourages advisor teams to bring in junior advisors and train them in a specific area of expertise.

According to Tibergien, many advisor firms have also implemented the master/intern process, in which young talent is invited to work with clients sooner, under the tutelage of a senior advisor. Instead of sending them out on their own, the firms work with them to teach them the ropes, he said, noting it takes six to eight years to fully develop an advisor.

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"This is a really big shift in the financial services industry, which historically has used the 'eat what you kill' model," said Tibergien.

Such a strategy is particularly effective when junior advisors are paired with clients in their age bracket, who may have fewer assets but are upwardly mobile, he said, allowing them to establish a relationship early on and grow together as a team.

As financial firms redefine their culture, however, they must also compete for talent with upstart firms founded by the very millennials they hope to recruit.

Kevin Kelly, 30 years old and chief investment officer of Recon Capital Partners, started his firm four years ago with two partners and four employees to escape the rigid structure of the big brokerage firms. All but one are between the ages of 28 and 31.

Thinking outside the box

"We are younger-generation advisors who want to use technology to better the way people invest," said Kelly, noting that his firm's small size and its employees' entrepreneurial spirit makes it more nimble.

Recon Capital Partners' three exchange-traded funds, for example, provide investors a transparent and low-cost fixed-income alternative in the low-bond-yield environment.

"When we see an opportunity in the marketplace, we can come out with a product or strategy, and it really empowers our employees to think outside the box and come up with solutions that meet the needs of the current marketplace," Kelly said.

His peers at the big brokerage houses are still struggling to assume more responsibility within the confines of an increasingly tight regulatory environment, he said.

"Younger employees like to see frequent movement in their career. ... We try to provide incremental steps for forward progress." -Mark Tibergien, CEO of Pershing Advisor Solutions

"There are a lot of restrictions in what people can and cannot do in their job roles, and millennials aren't used to hearing no," Kelly said.

That's not lost on Pershing's Tibergien, who said he's found a way to empower new recruits and develop their professional skill set using a tiered system for training.

"Younger employees like to see frequent movement in their career, even if it's a little at a time, rather than staying in the same position for years," he said. "We try to provide incremental steps for forward progress and impart more variety in what they are doing."

His firm also asks younger advisors to weigh in on management decisions.

After all, these are the kids who brought their parents up to speed on the "information superhighway"—helping them navigate smartphones, computer software and social media.

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"The bond with their parents is different; they grew up to feel like peers, and they came into the workplace feeling that they are peers with older employees," Tibergien said.

The brain drain facing the financial services industry comes at a time when traditional pension plans have vanished and millions of retirement savers are forced to make critical investment decisions for themselves.

As such, it's in everyone's best interest to cultivate—and retain—the next generation of financial advisors,Tibergien said.

"We have an oversupply of clients and an undersupply of people available to provide advice," he said. "There is a tendency for people in this business to expect all new hires to suffer as much as they did, but that doesn't get you very far when you're trying to develop young people."

—By Shelly Schwartz, special to CNBC.com