Recruiting, retaining assistants isn’t getting any easier

By Todd Humber | October 12, 2022 | Last updated on October 12, 2022
4 min read
C. J. Burton / Getty Images

When Alex Kandelas looks around his office, he doesn’t see a single piece of paper. Just a few years ago, he would have been buried by it. That absence is indicative of the automation in the financial advice industry that is drastically altering the role of assistants, he said.

Time that used to be eaten up by manual work is now available to support advisors in all kinds of ways, said Kandelas, regional vice-president with IG Wealth Management in Toronto.

That means the skillset he is looking for when scouring resumes is changing.

“You really have to look for someone who is a little tech savvy at this point,” he said. “A little more social media prowess; someone who can have good interactions with the clients.”

For existing staff, it often means an evolution of their roles — but most are taking it in stride and adapting, he said. For example, one silver lining from the pandemic was the crash course in technology it provided.

“Covid forced everybody to work differently from home,” Kandelas said. “It got people that really did struggle with technology to have to learn it, just to continue doing their work and supporting their teams.”

Turnover challenges

The pandemic gave birth to the Great Resignation as people re-evaluated priorities and sought work with better pay, perks and conditions. Travis O’Rourke, president of recruitment firm Hays Canada in Toronto, described the job market for assistants as a “moving target.”

“It is a little bit more difficult to recruit than it was three or four months ago,” he said.

That may sound strange, because it runs contrary to recent job numbers that show unemployment creeping up, he said, but it makes sense when you look at the broader economic picture.

Assistants in stable jobs might not be willing to switch employers with a potential recession looming lest they fall into a “last in, first out” scenario if cuts occur.

“Working for an organization you trust, that knows the value you bring, is a lot more attractive right now than going next door for a few extra dollars,” O’Rourke said.

That doesn’t mean advisors can take these professionals for granted. Perks like hybrid work and extra paid vacation can go a long way in recruitment and retention, he said. If your firm is big into ESG or charitable work, that should be touted — particularly when talking to young workers.

At IG Wealth Management, Kandelas hasn’t seen much turnover among assistants on his team coming out of the pandemic. He credits that retention success to a “collaborative culture.”

“Everybody has a voice, everybody’s opinion matters,” he said.

That type of inclusion can go a long way in keeping employees engaged.

“It’s really not all about the money in the end,” he said. “People want to be happy where they’re working.”

Hiring an assistant

Anthony Hanson, a financial advisor with Hanson Financial/IPC Investment Corporation in Tecumseh, Ont., just went through the process of hiring a new assistant. His biggest issue has been finding someone who will stay long term.

Part of the reason is the pay, he said, with compensation ranging in the $40,000–$60,000 range. Another reason is that these entry-level roles tend to attract young workers who tend to move on. That churn can be especially painful for small firms — Hanson has a total of six employees.

He is looking to his new assistant to take on slightly different tasks than in the past, including handling social media, updating websites and putting together e-mail newsletters. When she starts, there will be a heavy period of onboarding, and he’s leaning on his existing support staff to show her the ropes.

That onboarding process is critical in setting new hires up for success, Kandelas said: “You can’t just bombard them with ‘This is everything you have to do.’”

Still, it’s important to get them participating in every area of the practice.

“You want them involved in your team meetings, discussing strategies and discussing planning,” he said. “It’s easier to onboard somebody if they’re learning by doing than just giving them stuff to do on their own.”

Online modules are great, and can be part of the process, but nothing beats one-on-one time, Kandelas said.

There’s also a lot of lingo for new hires to get their heads around.

“Acronyms are all over the place,” he said. “They have to really pick up on a lot of financial jargon that we use, and it’s our responsibility as employers to make sure we simplify it for them.”

What makes a great assistant? For Kandelas, adaptability is the most important attribute.

“We look for somebody able to pick up and not only learn very quickly, but adapt to change very quickly,” he said.

That’s because there is so much upheaval in the industry — some of it they can see coming and plan for, but some of it can come out of the blue.

“It has just become very busy for advisor practices,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in the industry — technology change, compliance, regulatory. So it’s just compounding.”

His last bit of advice for advisors is to ensure they’re engaging with assistants on a regular basis and getting their input. Otherwise, they may be missing out.

“People may just look at them as assistants but, in reality, they have a skill set that nobody has ever seen or heard before because nobody’s bothered to ask their opinions,” he said.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is an award-winning journalist who has reported on workplace, HR, employment, legal and occupational safety issues for more than 20 years.