"It's all about muscle memory," he explains. Having served in the Marines for more than 20 years, Smith started out in Luxembourg guarding an embassy and has since traveled to more than 30 other countries including Senegal, Iraq, and, last year, Bahrain. For five years after 9/11 he was the counter intelligence chief for President George W. Bush's helicopter squadron, HMX-1.
Although he's still sporting his regulation crew cut (which his wife, Emily, shears to "zero on the sides and three on the top" every other week), he's traded in his fatigues for a three-piece-suit and red tie. From now on, he'll be aiming for quality stocks and investment goals rather than hitting paper targets.
This cool November day in St. Louis is Smith's last official day in the transition from protecting presidential assets to safeguarding clients' assets. He is one of two candidates in the maiden graduation of Edward Jones' new "FORCES" program, a 26-week course which helps train veterans to be financial advisors. When he returns to his home office in Mandeville, La., he'll officially be buying and selling on clients' behalf.
FORCES is one of a number of programs being rolled out on Wall Street to help draw in former military. Competition for veterans is heating up as troop numbers contract and up to 300,000 service members are expected to cycle out of the armed forces over the next five years, according to Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Broker-dealers are hoping that they will be able to prospect a unique group of young, disciplined and experienced job seekers from that pool. Edward Jones and Bank of America Merrill Lynch both launched large internal programs this year that were designed to help veterans transition from the front lines to the front office and spread a familiar message: I want YOU.
"It's a very rich talent pool and the competency, skills and experience that they develop while serving, we believe, align very well with what we're looking for in a successful financial advisor at Edward Jones," Mark Eberlin, a principal in charge of talent acquisition at the firm, says. Lewis Runnion, an advisor, former Army officer, and director of the Military Affairs Advisory Group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, adds: "One of the things we try to convey to men and women leaving the military now is to try and consider those things that are outside of your comfort zone. Whether you're looking at the financial services industry for banking, retail or financial advisory or on the operations side, don't skate to where you're friends are going."
Along with fellow talent acquisition specialist Matt Doran*, Eberlin spent nearly eight months figuring out how to leverage Edward Jones' history and training in order to bring in ex-military at a rate of nearly 500 to 600 per year for the next eight years. They reached out to some of the 1,300 veteran advisors already in the firm and to veteran employment agencies and eventually came up with FORCES, an extended training program for career changers coming out of the military. It launched in May with Smith and two other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in the first class and by December had 125 trainees at various stages.
"Our FORCES program has given us an opportunity to go tell a great story to military veterans to get them excited and interested in a career in the financial services industry," Eberlin explains, sitting in the dining hall at Edward Jones' training facility in St. Louis on the day of the program's first graduation.
Of the approximately 70% of veterans who enter the private sphere, less than 5% of that total go into the financial industry, according to data from Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A small majority, nearly 22%, wind up employed by the government.
Smith committed to the Marines in his senior year in high school and had a degree in criminal justice, which he received online from Park University in St. Louis while serving. He hoped to find a job in government or a support agency, but those plans were stymied by hiring freezes. Positions had become "uber competitive," he says, owed in large part to the higher number of veterans coming out after 9/11. By his own count, Smith filled out more than 250 job applications before humbly reaching out to friends.