The financial advisor job boom: Is it really sustainable?
According to the Straits Times, retrenchment doubled from 10,690 to 26,110 in 2020 alone . COVID-19 has decimated many jobs in multiple industries, most notably airline and tourism while many companies implemented hiring freezes. As unemployment rose, there was one industry that saw a job boom in the financial services industry with over 2,000 job vacancies across different insurers.
A pandemic-proof industry
The insurance sector grows in a pandemic. Insurance is an essential tool and the pandemic served to further highlight its importance to create market demand. Technology also enables remote sales transactions despite regulations restricting face-to-face interaction. Ultimately, insurers are operating by the law of large numbers by casting their nets far and wide for new advisors. But is the job boom merely due to the industry’s nature per se?
Why are people biting the bait?
It does not take a rocket scientist to understand one’s motivations to join the industry. We simply go back to basic human instinct for survival. With many livelihoods upended by the pandemic, people are desperate. The advisory industry is far more palatable than the other options, as it promises grand dreams, from luxurious incentive trips to attractive five-figure monthly earnings. These lofty goals resonate with human greed and drives many to bite the bait.
Barriers to entry are not prohibitive either. The minimum academic qualifications are a full A’ level cert or a polytechnic diploma equivalent, which makes half of the local populace qualified. Hiring financial institutions further alleviate any fears of cashflow strain by offering a basic salary as an interim compensation before the fresh recruits are deemed fully equipped to earn a wholly commissions-based income. With all these perks, how sustainable is the job exactly?
The Insurance dilemma
In developed markets like Singapore, agent saturation is very high with an advisor to economically-active consumer ratio of 1:117  Odds are, you would have at least one acquaintance or family member who is a financial advisor. The job boom in financial services also means greater competition between insurers, marked by aggressive marketing and sales campaigns.
Joining the insurance industry would probably be a temporal solution to tide through the storm than a sustainable option, especially for mid-career switchers.
With technology, a competitor is rising up against advisors selling investment-linked plans: robo advisors. While robo advisors offer liquidity and investment portfolios at a lower cost, this is merely a product-feature comparison. The human advisor’s value lies beyond good product offerings to providing holistic financial advice, which the industry desperately need advisors to do to create sustainability.
What will happen?
When air travel and tourism resume post COVID-19, we envision many people to re-migrate back to these recovering industries. Hence, we can expect higher attrition in the financial services industry. This is harmful for the industry as it upsets advisor-client trust. With automation providing non-biased and sustainable services, clients will deviate from traditional advisory models to technological platforms.
What’s needed for upcoming Advisors and Insurers?
We think this job boom is not sustainable for many reasons. The quality of advice will unavoidably be influenced by sales bias and the advisor’s level of product knowledge. Research has also shown that public trust towards insurers is low. Eventually, the lack of advice consistency and quality may compromise on customers’ financial decisions and further fuel negative industry perceptions despite regulations being put in check to protect customers’ interests.
We believe insurers need to move away from traditional mass-selling and hiring processes and re-think the role of technology in ensuring congruent and sound financial advice. This may be a small step in the long run to building a sustainable and enjoyable career for financial practitioners.
 Ratio is obtained by dividing number of economically-active people in Singapore by number of active financial advisors. Source: https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/banking-finance/financial-advisers-get-1-year-reprieve-from-zero-sales-fees
How will Work look like in a post Covid-19 world?
With the COVID-19 outbreak, digital channels have unceremoniously taken over our lives. No one knows for sure when the pandemic will end. We do know, however, that work in the recovered world will not operate with a dichotomous view. Even for the financial advisers.
Work From Home Via Zoom
Initially, employees rejoice with work from home arrangements. This means more sleep-in time instead of waking up early. Many employers worry about the new arrangement’s impact on their teams’ productivity, but work-from-home arrangements make monitoring difficult. This has brought micro-management to a new level and made working hours highly fluid. It’s a two-way street: This affects both employers and employees and they hate it.
Work from home arrangements also bring a new set of challenges. Events at home can distract employees from work. Unknowingly, employees will then multi-task which adds a psychological burden on them and lowers productivity. To compound this existing issue, remote meetings have replaced face-to-face interactions.
Remote meetings are currently the dominant channels for appointments. Zoom meetings do come with its perks. Formal wear is not needed and companies without an office can cut rental costs.
However, people are growing weary with remote meetings. Screen time takes a toll on the human psyche, commonly known as Zoom fatigue. Research has shown that people expend unnecessary energy on video (or face-less calls) trying to understand non-verbal cues like facial expressions. Employers are also uncertain about potential online distractions as no one can control the employee from streaming a movie in the middle of an online meeting. All these make remote meetings a negative experience.
The benefits of working in the office are manifold. Face-to-face trainings will always be more efficient for employees. Ultimately, humans were designed for social interaction with the capacity to relate and most importantly, be present.
Fast forward 10 years later, what will work look like in a post COVID-19 world?
Post Covid-19 Work Behaviour… Ten Years Later
In a post COVID-19 world, we envision a work arrangement whereby office and home settings interchange flexibly. Employees will come to the workplace with a renewed purpose – to strategize and socialize. On days when they need absolute concentration, they pick the setting most conducive – be it the office or home.
We may look forward to clocking miles from business trips as air travel resume at full speed. However, employers have learnt through the pandemic to depend on localized talents more heavily than before. We expect globetrotting corporate travel to occur at lower intensity than before the pandemic.
If Nothing Changes? Or…Another Pandemic?
There are consequences if we insist on 100% work-from-home arrangements. In the worst-case scenario, we can see extreme micro-managing happening. Can you imagine companies attempting to squeeze more working hours from the weary employee through sophisticated software capable of machine-learning? From screen-time analysis to the number of breaks taken, there will be increasingly lesser privacy between employer and employee. With discussions on personal data infringement going around, this is a ridiculous after-thought. At the current pace of technological advance, however, this does not seem too far-fetched.
What About The Work Of Financial Advisors?
We will see a hybrid of customer engagement involving face-to-face and online interaction. The latter has its downsides. With household distractions and Zoom fatigue, customers may be psychologically absent in the sales meeting, jeopardizing advisors’ sales efforts. Despite these issues, people have gotten used to Zoom and will continue using it.
Ultimately, financial advisory is a form of entrepreneurship. As self-employed entrepreneurs, financial advisors need to be flexible enough to use technology when needed while being physically present to help their clients discover financial freedom.