After a grim year beset by unhappy investors, reduced pay, and layoffs, the mood among the support staff at financial advisory practices is looking up in 2010. Registered Rep.'s annual survey of sales assistants, client service associates, and other support professionals across the country, conducted in August, indicates that they are expecting improvements in compensation and working conditions. Of 169 survey respondents, 46.2 percent said they expected their total compensation for 2010 to be more than what they got in 2009. A year ago, just 29.8 percent who were surveyed felt that way. On the larger question of job satisfaction, more than 70 percent reported they either loved their jobs or were mostly satisfied.

“What I'm seeing return is incentive plans, and bonuses being paid out again or instituted,” says Laurie Burkhard, senior business consultant at Securities America. “And those had been stopped, so that's nice. The moratorium on hiring has been lifted.” But advisors who are searching for qualified associates are finding the hunt to be “quite difficult,” she adds. “They'll get a lot of resumes, so it's not a lack of candidates. … My pure guess on this is that the assistants who are good at their jobs, even if they're mildly unhappy because of the state of the industry, are staying put. When advisors downsize, they keep their best employees and let go the ones who are not as good.” A strengthening economy might send more of the talented associates looking for better deals, she surmises.

One thing that hasn't changed is the appetite for professional improvement. About half of those surveyed by Registered Rep. said they were interested in moving up in the financial advisory world, compared with 31 percent who said they were happy staying put. Nearly 15 percent said they would ultimately like to be office managers, while another 11 percent wanted to be advisors themselves.

Interest in career development conferences and training is also up. Just a year ago, the annual sales associates' conference sponsored by Securities America failed to meet its attendance goal for the first time. But Burkhard says this year's conference on Oct. 14-15 in Omaha, Neb., is on target for attendance. The conference, called Assistant University, includes programs aimed at different levels of associate experience, covering such topics as time management, investment products, and client relation management.

Support personnel at Raymond James Financial Services also are showing more interest in advancement. The broker/dealer holds a series of conferences and workshops throughout the year aimed at professional improvement for associates. Missy Escribano, who runs education programs for the broker/dealer, says they are developing an on-line program for associates who attend the conferences and are looking for supplemental instruction to reinforce what they've learned. “They're telling us they want more opportunities like this,” Escribano says. “They're hungry for it.”

Playing a key role in the success of their practice is important to associates, the Registered Rep. survey showed. Nearly 21 percent of respondents said they're an “integral part” of strategy and development at the practice; another 44 percent said they provide “some insight” into goals and strategies. It was a theme that a number of associates in the survey warmed up to. “I enjoy the trust of our clients with all of their service needs, and am confident that my advisors depend on me as an important part of their team,” one associate wrote in the survey. In response to a question about what they liked most about their job, another wrote, “The two advisors I work with make me a part of their business plan and treat me as an equal.”

At a time when business is tough, some advisors are more than happy for the help. A few who recommended their assistants to be profiled in this month's issue (see pages 43-48) cited instances where their assistants' efforts helped pull more assets into the practice. Stephen G. Edmondson of Edmondson Huser & Castelli Wealth Management Group, a Wells Fargo Advisors practice in Indianapolis, said he hired assistants early in his 24-year career with the idea of having them work closely with clients. He says he's unsure whether younger advisors with less experience appreciate that. The person who answers the telephone wields a lot of influence at a financial practice, Edmondson says. “Sometimes (investors) like the idea that when they pick up the phone, there's somebody that's going to answer it most of the time and be willing to help them out with any questions they have.”

METHODOLOGY: On Aug, 10, 2010, Penton Research e-mailed invitations to 869 sales assistant subscribers of Registered Rep. to participate in this survey. There were 169 completed surveys, for an effective response rate of 19.4 percent