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If you are interested in finance and think that managing other people’s money may be your bag, then you may be cut out to become a stockbroker. Becoming this type of investment consultant isn't easy, and the process can be quite intense and stressful at times. Still, many individuals coming out of school want to join the ranks. But how can they go about doing that? Is there a defined path that one should follow? This article addresses those questions and provides greater insight into this alluring career, which now offers more options than were available in the past.

Desire and Skills

Stockbrokering sounds like glamorous work; we have Hollywood movies like Wall Street to thank for that. But the fact is that many first-year brokers end up dropping out of the business because the job usually requires long hours, can be very stressful and requires a large amount of dedication. If you are considering entering the profession, you should first do some soul-searching and try to determine whether you have the desire and patience to do what it takes to be successful. (Read "Financial Careers According to Hollywood" to see how financial professionals are portrayed on the silver screen.)

While no particular personality traits are required to become a broker, generally speaking, the successful ones have an inner drive to succeed, and they can take rejection. These are important qualities to have, given that most of a broker's day is likely to be spent on the phone, pitching stock ideas to prospective or existing clients.

Other key skills that can come in handy include:

  • An ability to sell
  • An ability to effectively communicate
  • An ability to explain to others concepts that are sometimes hard to grasp

Although classes and seminars are offered to improve communications ability and salesmanship, that takes time and money. Therefore, it's usually best if you already posses these skills before entering the field.

Education

A college education is generally a must these days, as the competition to get into certain firms and training programs can be quite intense.

While there are no formal educational requirements for becoming a broker, (as there are to become a CPA or financial analyst), many firms are now looking for candidates who have at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably focused on some aspect of business or finance; individuals who major in these subjects probably will have a leg up on the competition. In addition, a master's degree helps the candidate stand out from the crowd, as it implies that the candidate has learned additional skills in communication and finance that can be helpful on the job. (Read "Should You Head Back to Business School?" to find out how an MBA might help you on the path to a great career.)

Licensing Requirements

To become a registered representative – and actually practice – all stockbrokers are required to obtain the same standard securities licenses. One must pass the Series 7 and Series 63 exams administered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA); these authorize representatives to buy and sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other types of securities.

  • The Series 7 exam is traditionally taken by beginning brokers. It is a general securities license that enables an individual to sell securities such as stocks.
  • The Series 63 exam focuses on state laws and regulations.

Would-be brokers should understand that these exams are not easy; you must be sponsored by a legitimate brokerage to take them, and the firm sponsoring you for the exam expects you to pass.

Many stockbrokers are then required (or choose) to obtain other licenses as well, such as: the Series 3 or Series 31 licenses for commodities and managed futures, a Series 65 or Series 66 to become a Registered Investment Adviser, or a life and/or health insurance license to sell life, disability and long-term care products and fixed and variable annuity contracts. 

It is also becoming increasingly important to be able to pass a strict background check that will examine both the prospective broker’s criminal and financial history. Those with recent bankruptcies, tax liens or repossessions will likely be discarded from the list of potential candidates just as quickly as those who have been in any type of legal trouble more serious than traffic citations.

A Firm Fit

How to get into a sponsoring firm? Be on the lookout for companies that have reputable and structured training programs. These companies can be extremely helpful in teaching certain sales techniques, time-management skills, and the ins and outs of the industry. (For tips on getting accepted into the training program you want, read "Get Into a Broker Training Program.")

To find this information, conduct a search on the internet and, more specifically, on the websites of individual firms. Good old-fashioned help-wanted ads in major newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times might also detail information on training programs.

Beyond that, consider firms that match your personality and preferences. For example, as a would-be broker, consider whether you want to work for a large, internationally known financial supermarket or a smaller specialty firm.

Sometimes brokers who start off at larger firms feel like small fish in a very large pond. However, the downside to a smaller firm is that landing customers or ensuring confidence in your firm might harder because of its lesser-known name.

Types of Stockbrokers

Full-Service Broker

Working at a full-service firm or wire house such as Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER-F, MER-D) or Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) is still the most traditional approach to selling investments. Brokers who work for these firms will be provided with a comprehensive training package that includes sales and product training as well as education in administrative procedures and compliance regulations. They will also typically be provided with an office space (or at least a desk), business cards, a guaranteed salary or draw against commission and a very high sales quota that they must meet within a relatively short period of time, if they want to stay on there.

Some firms have changed their models and allow their reps longer periods of time with bigger starting salaries so that they have a better chance of succeeding. But a relatively large percentage of each class of trainees will wash out of these programs because they are not able to generate enough business to meet their quotas.

Many very successful brokers eventually leave these full-service firms and move on to independent broker-dealers such as Raymond James (NYSE:RJF, RJD) or Linsco Private Ledger. These firms typically offer a wider array of products and services and do not require their reps to sell proprietary products of any kind. They also usually offer much higher payouts on commission than full-service firms, and sometimes a warmer and friendlier atmosphere. However, they are usually only capable of giving back office administrative support and do not provide amenities such as office space. Those who work for these firms must pay for all of their own expenses and overhead.

Those without prior training or licensure might be wise to start at a full-service firm that will provide these things at no cost; even if this sort of outfit is ultimately where they want to be, they will acquire skills that make them much more marketable when they leave.

Discount Brokers

If you are not a super salesman by nature but would still like to try your hand at managing investments, a discount broker such as Charles Schwab (NYSE:SCHW) or Fidelity (NYSE:FNF) might work for you. These firms are geared toward providing effective service for walk-in clients and usually pay their brokers a flat salary (albeit with some minor bonuses or other incentives).

Many brokers who don’t make it at full-service firms end up at discount firms where they have a chance to really learn the business and get a feel for the markets. Some brokers can eventually build up enough of an informal clientele that they can eventually move back to a full-service or independent broker-dealer and make a living there.

Discount brokers are likely to gain a much broader base of experience than many full-service brokers, who generally specialize in certain areas such as IRA rollovers or employee stock options. A rep who works at a firm such as Schwab or Fidelity is expected to be able to provide a broad array of research and services, including basic technical and fundamental analysis, rollovers, stock options, margin accounting, derivatives, bond ladders, open-, closed-end and exchange-traded mutual funds, partnerships, charitable gifting, 1035 exchanges and many other areas of investment, retirement and estate planning. (For related insight, see "5 Misconceptions About Discount Brokers.")

Reps will also often be required to perform administrative duties such as cashiering, new-account setup, processing stock certificates and other paperwork. But they are not subject to the kind of sales pressure as their full-service counterparts and, generally, have either very low or no production quotas of any kind.

Bank Brokers

Being a broker at a bank is a very different proposition than working at Merrill Lynch or Fidelity. Like most discount firms, many banks also look for licensed brokers with previous experience, but the banking system is so unlike the brokerage world that it usually takes newcomers a while to get their bearings. Brokers who work at banks are full-service brokers in a technical sense, but they are often given a lower payout on their commissions in return for having access to the bank’s customer base. Bank brokerage positions were once viewed as dead-end jobs that were only for brokers who failed elsewhere, but this perception has largely disappeared with the growth of this segment of the brokerage industry.

Most banks and credit unions now employ in-house investment consultants who can offer non-FDIC insured products and services. A growing number of banks also expect their reps to cultivate a clientele from outside the bank, however, and most successful have worked to develop a system that rewards bank employees for referring customers to them as well as some sort of prospecting platform to bring in new business.

Experienced brokers understand that they need to be visible and present to the bank staff and work to educate them on what they do, but also be able to stay out of their way when they get busy with their banking duties. Many of them will invite wholesalers and other product vendors to bring lunch for the staff and then explain how their products can benefit bank customers.

Bank brokers can also expect to work with a more conservative clientele than they will encounter elsewhere, and many of them rely heavily upon fixed annuities and other low-risk products to build their businesses. But bank brokers usually escape the sky-high sales quotas and pressure to sell proprietary products that those who work at other full-service firms face. The banking environment is usually a much more relaxed atmosphere, but brokers often have to make an extra effort to get their clients to understand that what they offer – unlike the regular bank accounts – is not FDIC-insured.

Building Clientele

Wherever a fledgling broker lands, the core of his or her efforts is on building a book of business. There are many ways to seek clients, including:

The Bottom Line

There is more opportunity than ever in the financial industry today for those who are willing to work. The modern stockbroker has several major arenas in which to build a business. This entire process can be a very time-consuming and costly adventure. As a would-be broker, consider the effort that must be put forth and whether you have the patience and mindset to take on something like this.

Keep in mind the time and effort it takes to attain such a position. If you are lucky or motivated enough to possess the necessary aptitude, take heart. Although it isn't for everyone, being a stockbroker can be a very rewarding job.

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