Adopting efficiencies from the dating game may seem like an odd proposition in financial planning, but for Alisdair Barr, matching candidates to employers in six-minute ‘speed dates’ makes sense.

The Grad Mentor program tries to get university graduates placed into full-time roles at financial planning and accounting firms. It also provides a unique conduit for advisory firms to recruit young talent.

The program is compensated by the employers if matches are made and an employment contract is signed.

Barr, the program’s founder, says the idea for the speed date-format came about in response to what he saw as an inefficient recruitment cycle in the financial services industry.

“There’s a lot of wasted time in the process,” he says. “I had a few existing relationships with several universities for sourcing paid work experience, and I just thought there was a better way to do it, something that was scalable and energetic.”

The idea of short, speed-date style interviews began to take shape. Then, in 2014, he was presented with a request that gave him the chance to put his idea into practice.

“I had a particular bank ask me if we could find a bunch of grads for a dealer group, which gave us the opportunity to put some real structure behind the concept.”

Nerves and networking

For this night’s event, at Zurich HQ in North Sydney, the graduates are noticeably anxious. They seem to have trouble knowing what to do with their hands. But they are a brave lot, and approach the assorted groups of chatting professionals with nervous smiles.

The potential employers are sympathetic to their plight, and seem to be dealing with a measure of nerves themselves. The initial few minutes are undeniably awkward, but far from unpleasant. People pair off into groups and chat about why they’re there, what they study and the kind of job they’re after. It’s a pre-curser to the night’s activities.

After a short group welcome from Barr, the employers are given 30 seconds to come forward and introduce themselves to the grads. They are chief executives, managers and advisers of mostly boutique firms, with a few mid-size representatives and one or two institutional delegates among them. There are also representatives from the Financial Planning Association and the Association of Financial Planners, here in the name of “engagement and support”, according to one.

Showtime

We file into the date room and the employers take their seats, which they will retain while the grads use their younger legs to flit between desks at six-minute intervals.

The first bell rings, and we’re off.

The interviews start out awkwardly, but both sides seem to get comfortable after the first few rounds. It quickly becomes apparent that the grads who impress are the ones who know how to look an employer in the eye, listen, and respond accordingly. Some grads have a smooth cadence to their conversation, while others struggle.

“The engagement is what I’m after,” one boutique employer says. “They’re all really well qualified and they’re obviously bright kids, but I want to know if they can hold themselves in a conversation and interact at a reasonable level.”

After eight dates, there is a short break and the group takes a collective breath. When we resume, everyone is more at ease and the interactions are smoother.

The graduates are a diverse group, and at their best when sharing their personal histories. Robin has “faced a lot of challenges” after leaving Johannesburg to study economics in Australia. Federico, a 27-year-old applied finance graduate from Milan, loves to talk and came to Australia via London and New Zealand.

Sarah, 23, is one of the more confident graduates and chats easily. “I love dining out – it’s my favourite sport,” she says. “People like me aren’t exposed to professionals, so this is helping me create contacts and build a network.”

She was shaky at the beginning of the night, she admits, but not anymore.

“I was really nervous at the beginning and didn’t know what to expect. But you get comfortable quickly.”

Despite having trouble navigating some questions – “I’m 23! I don’t know my long-term goals” – Sarah identified three firms that she really likes.

“I had a really good conversation with them, and I’m hoping they take the next step,” she says, before laughing at how much it sounds like a post-date conversation. “Wow, it really does feel like speed dating.”

For their part, the employers seem to find the experience both useful, and encouraging. PJ Patterson, founder and chief executive at Keystone Financial, says financial planning “is in good shape if any of these young people get involved”.

“There’s an innocent passion, in a way,” he says. “They have a lot to learn, but you can see that there are kids here who want to make a difference.”

Patterson makes the point that his dealer services group, AAP, put him onto the program after he asked his relationship manager if he knew of anyone looking for a job. He does, however, think licensees should be more proactive in connecting their advisers with providers like Grad Mentor.

“The odd thing is that I had to ask them,” he says.

Jacqui Sherlock, chief executive at Sherlock Wealth, found the experience “much better than I expected”.

“I thought it would be a bit of a laborious process, but it was really fun and went very quickly,” she says. “I really enjoyed meeting the next generation of planners and hearing what attracts them to the industry.”

Sherlock, like most of the employers in the room, is looking for “a graduate to start as a client service manager, and then move into a more technical paraplanning role and eventually [become] an adviser”.

The grads who stood out, she says, were the ones who made a connection.

“This isn’t about qualifications or being well scripted,” she explains. “It’s about authenticity and the ability to read people, and converse in a way that builds a good relationship. We actually ended up laughing a lot, which was great.”

The matching process

Selecting grads for the Grad Mentor program has a number of stages. Once they come through the chatbot or website, they complete online psychometric testing to determine their cognitive skills and personality type. “It’s not necessarily a screening mechanism,” Barr says, “but it paints a picture.”

“They then come in for a 45-minute interview,” he explains. “After that, we pick the candidates, and the ones that come through get a further round of coaching on how to interact and get the most out of the experience.”

The coaching leading up to the event, and the interview experience on the night, clearly benefit the graduates. For most, it is the first step to becoming a professional.

The employers get first pick from a high-calibre crop of graduates keen to form part of the next generation of advisers. They also get valuable feedback from the graduates about how well-liked they were and how desirable they are as an employer.

Sherlock confirmed that this was a key point of interest. “We were very keen to see how we rated,” she says. “Part of attracting good candidates is being attractive to them.”

Barr says this is consistent with his experience.

“The funny thing is that the first thing the employers want to know after the event is how popular they were,” he explains. “The students never ask that.”

Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.
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