On Tuesday on a wet and miserable evening, 20 university students gathered at Zurich’s North Sydney headquarters to put prospective employers through their paces.

They were the latest candidates put forward by Alisdair Barr’s Grad Mentor program, which seeks to match financial planning graduates with financial planning employers.

While Barr pitches his evenings at employers as an opportunity for them to assess potential employees, in reality it’s as much about the graduates interviewing the prospective employers. And the students are pretty adamant about what they’re looking for from an employer, and their careers.

As the rain bucketed down outside, Barr oversaw an intensive “speed-dating” evening – each candidate given five minutes at a table with each prospective employer before moving on to the next.

Career choices

At the table occupied by Professional Planner the conversation wasn’t really about the employer/employee match – it really couldn’t be – but more about what they’d made of the evening so far and why this group of young, bright-eyed and enthusiastic kids had identified financial planning as a potential career.

They put forward varied and often highly personal reasons (based on their experiences as the children of immigrants), but they revealed a common thread. That could be because of the work Barr does ahead of time to select students to participate, or it could be indicative of a broader trend and a fundamental and deeply heartening shift.

First of all, it was clear that the baggage of the industry’s past doesn’t matter to this cohort. They know all about it, but more than one of them said they’d only considered financial planning because they perceive it as no longer having a sales-driven culture.

Hooked on financial planning

They see it as a viable alternative to accounting, and a common story is that they select financial planning as an elective but then got hooked. In melds a predisposition towards finance and numbers with their love of dealing with people. And they’re prepared to put in the hard yards.

Entry-level positions, working in administration roles to learn the ropes of the business and the practice of advice, five-to-seven-year career paths to becoming fully-qualified and competent financial planners – not one expected to be providing face-to-face advice to clients, on their own, for several years.

They regard being a financial planner as a position and a privilege that must be earned. Ethics, codes of professional conduct, monitoring and disciplinary processes and ongoing professional development are all taken as necessary, and welcome.

But just getting a job to start with is the first hurdle that they all face. The principal of a small financial planning practice expressed some doubt to Professional Planner before the evening started – there was just about no chance, he thought, that he’d find anyone suitable to bring into his business. By the half-time break he had his eye on two.

Another perspective on professionalism

Earlier the same day, before the heavens opened, CFA Societies Australia held its 2015 Australia Investment Conference, at which the global head of the CFA Institute, Paul Smith, spoke about professionalism.

Smith’s impassioned speech invoked an extremely strong sense of déjà vu. Rewind five, six or seven years, and his address could have been one delivered by the Financial Planning Association (FPA) to its members.

“One of the core elements of being a profession is you renounce profit maximisation,” Smith said.

“[If] profit maximisation … is the end goal of ourselves as an industry, then we can never aspire to that standard of professionalism and we will always sell our clients short.”

That it was delivered to an audience made up largely of fund managers only serves to show just how far down the value chain the realisation has made it that winning trust and respect and attaining the status of a profession can only be achieved by serving the public interest first, the interests of clients second, and only then self-interest and/or the interest of an employer or a business.

That isn’t a message that needs to be delivered to Barr’s graduates either, of course. It’s hard-wired into that cohort. It’s second nature to them. And it’s simply how they expect and want to conduct themselves as their careers unfold.

GALLERY: Grad Mentor student introduction evening – October 13, 2015. Click thumbnail to enlarge

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Simon Hoyle is head of market insight for CoreData Research.