SURVEY SAYS: Career Paths to Retirement Industry

During a dinner at the PLANSPONSOR National Conference celebrating the 2016 Best in Class 401(k) Plan designees, conversations turned to the career paths that led folks into the retirement industry.

For example, one guy started out as a chemical engineer and moved around until becoming chief finance officer. My first job out of graduate school was as a math instructor at a university in Virginia.

Last week, I asked NewsDash readers, “Did you start your career in the retirement industry, and if your path was unusual or unexpected, will you share your story?”

More than half (55.9%) of responding readers work in a plan sponsor role, 20.6% are advisers/consultants, 20.6% are TPAs/recordkeepers/investment managers and nearly 3% are attorneys.

All respondents said they started their careers in the retirement services industry, but this is a confusing result, as many who shared their career paths started in jobs unrelated to employer-sponsored retirement plans. Some initial jobs cited were production manager in household cleaning products industry, environmental consultant, teachers, among others.

In general comments about career paths, there was a lot of advice about going with the flow, trying new things and choosing careers that make one happy. Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who said: “Career ‘Path’ is a good word. A path is rarely straight and wide. Paths tend to be narrow and irregular and go unexpected places. Don’t be afraid to veer off the career super-highway you started out on after college. You cannot be expected at 20 or 22 to know what will engage you for the rest of your life. Take risks.” 

A big thank you to everyone who participated in our survey!

Career Paths 

I wanted bankers hours and holidays - so I applied at a bank. They asked if I was familiar with 401(k)s - I had one at my first job, so I said SURE! They assigned me to the trust dept and said that I was the 1st person they hired to process "daily valuation". That was on Oct 31, 1994. 22 years later, I'm still in the business and trying to decide if I got the trick or they got the treat!

My career in benefits, not just the retirement industry, started when I spent 4 years in the Navy in the early '70s as a Yeoman. I learned skills that in 1984 led me to a job as a legal secretary at the law firm I still work for 32+ years later. After about a year as a legal secretary, I was hired into the HR Department as a generalist and gradually got more responsibility in the areas of insurance and retirement. I went through the CEBS program and received my designation in 1988. My job responsibilities and the law firm have grown through the years to the point where I am the only Benefits Manager this firm of over 500 attorneys has ever had. I am now considering how to transition to my own retirement.

I have a degree in Marketing/Advertising and started out in Sales, and then became a Marketing Manager with a bank as a result of a move due to marriage. I only got into retirement services when I wanted to only work part-time when my children were in school. The bank had an opening in the Trust dept working with EB plans for clients, and I loved it! The rest is history!

I started out as an Internal Auditor for a private company. After auditing the company's Retirement Plans Administration department 2 years in a row, I became quite familiar with the terms and rules involved with administering the plans. A job opened up in that department, I got it, and I have been there for over 2 years now.

A large bank contacted me as I started grad school (accounting) and offered me a full time job in their accounting department. I was already raising 2 kids alone, taking an overload of grad classes, working one part-time job and studying for the CPA exam. So I was offered a 10 hour a week internship instead to get to know the company. I accepted even though it was insane to add to the chaos. I ended up in the 401(k) plan servicing department and have been in this niche for 20 years. Now I work with DB investments for a plan sponsor and love it.

Started my career as a Computer Programmer Trainee and progressed to Systems Analyst before responding to a Job Posting and moving to HR as a Personnel Assistant. Ran the Company Picnic, wrote job descriptions and was given the first IBM PC to be introduced into the company in the early 80's. I used it to develop a simple recordkeeping system for the Company's first 401(k) plan in 1982 and was promoted to Manager of Comp & Benefits. In the immortal words of Jerry Garcia: "What a long strange trip it's been."

I went into retail management after college. Pretty soon, I hated my job. My dad ran an employee benefits insurance agency and convinced me to come work for him enrolling people in Cafeteria plans and voluntary benefits. I was really good at it and earned many insurance awards. We were using a "401(k) guy" to enroll our 401(k) plans and he was horrible. My dad got the idea that I could do better. I had a half a day of training in 401(k) plans when I did my first 401(k) enrolling in 1992. Pretty soon, we started doing compliance functions and I was "nominated" to learn compliance. Needless to say, I started attending educational seminars and writing procedures immediately. Remember, in 1992 there were no online resources to do anything!

B.S. in Ocean Engineering followed by training in Naval Nuclear Power before working as a production manager in the household cleaning products industry. Law school at night before becoming an ERISA attorney.

I started at the IRS as a tax auditor in 1972. A year later, I was transferred to the pension trust group which issued determination letters for pension and profit-sharing plans. That was a year before ERISA was enacted. The rest is history.

Not counting babysitting my first job was in a bakery and then I also started worked in a high men's suits factory. I guess you could say I was supporting the industry from a young age almost 40 years ago.

Bank auditor, to treasury officer, to pension administrator for a plan sponsor.

Started out as a CPA before moving into corporate finance followed by a position at a large private foundation with responsibility for both investments and the retirement plan. Probably not terribly unusual.

PhD Soil Scientist, professional Geologist in FL. I worked as environmental consultant for 9 years primarily delineating the extent of uncontrolled hazardous waste and predicting movement direction and future concentrations at offsite points. In early 1990s, EPA was looking for deep pockets to pay for such contamination cleanup. Likely targets were contaminated properties banks owned in "trusts." I took a job with a large mutual fund company as their internal environmental consultant. My job was to assist their trust clients in managing their property risks. I was also working to build/sell the environmental liability insurance program. My environmental consulting position was quashed within the first 3 months. The enviro insurance program was quashed within the first year, the entire insurance business 6 months after that. At that point, someone asked me what I knew about "401(k)s" I said I had one. They then asked what I knew about "proposals." I said I knew a lot. The mutual fund company offered back-office 401(k) services and funds for bank trust departments. At that point, I was re-assigned to the 401(k) group to write proposals for their clients. 21 yrs later, I provide investment advisory/consulting services to our corporate clients.

B.S, Geological Engineering, then MBA. First job was in management information systems consulting with a Big 8 accounting firm. Then moved to be a systems analyst with a national paging company (remember pagers?). Then a voluntary pay cut and career change to be a loan officer trainee with a small, rural community bank. Still with the same bank, now operating in four states and the largest privately held bank in our home state. Progressed from trainee to lender to CFO. Now serving as Chief Investment Officer and Plan Administrator for ESOP and 401(k).

Career Paths (cont.) 

I started in the mailroom of a Fortune 500 company while attending college at night. One day while delivering mail I overheard someone was leaving the Employee Benefits Dept so I applied and 29 years later I'm still in the benefits field.

I started out, as many others did, as a math teacher

After I graduated with a journalism degree, I went looking for a husband too proud to let his wife work. They were extinct by then and so I needed a job. My friend got me a job working with her as a benefits counselor for a pension fund office. I still growl at her for it when we meet for lunch. But now it's 799 days until I retire.

Had no real skills, so went to law school. Eventually landed at IRS in their estate tax division. Then, took job at small consulting firm in Albany, NY. The head of the benefit and comp consulting division left and they asked me if I would take over since I was one of the few that knew what ERISA stood for. Now, 25 years later, still enjoying the constant changes.

I started as a temp, pulling employment records for deferred vested employees of a large corporation. I gradually learned more about that corporation's defined benefit plans and now, at a new employer - I'm finishing up my CEBS!

I started with my company as a computer programmer. I was the programmer that maintained the system for our 401(k) plan that was administered in-house. When Section 89 was passed (yes, I'm showing my age), our company needed someone to take full-time ownership of the 401(k) plan. Since I had written most of the computer code I knew as much as anyone about 401(k) plans. Been living the plan sponsor dream since that day!

I have a degree in International Business. Through networking at college, I was hired by an alum who had a benefits consulting firm. My grand plan was to live abroad and help American ex-pats as they negotiated foreign benefits, etc. Instead, 20 years later, I am in a field based on IRS and DOL regulations. Alas, I do love my job.

Started as a history teacher after grad school, worked in retail management for over 20 years before settling into human resources and employment benefits.

For 15 years, I have worked as a writer creating educational and marketing materials for retirement plan sponsors and participants. Before that I spent 17 years as an advertising copy writer and phototypesetter (showing my age here) for a major sporting goods retailer. From basketballs, treadmills and sweat-wicking tank tops to IRAs and RMDs.

I was in department store retailing (department manager, buyer, assistant buyer) before getting a job in a bank as a trust officer working on employee benefit plans.

I graduated from college with a degree in English Literature and managed a pizza restaurant for a year. I tried teaching for a year, and realized for the amount of work and time put in relative to the money, I got into the corporate/financial services world. I am very happy with the route!

Started as a secretary in a new 30-person fast growing company, reporting to the Controller. We introduced health and welfare, 401(k) and stock options. Long hours but loved it....became hooked on this field.

I started as an internal audit in the electric utility industry. Now I am a church administrator for a large church and as part of that responsibility, oversee the 403(b) retirement plan for our employees.

Being a Spanish major but not wanting to teach, I added Business as a 2nd major. My first job out of college combined both, but with each job change, I moved further and further away from using my language skills (I had also learned Portuguese). When the international department of one employer relocated, I moved to the benefits office, working with the DB plan. When they relocated the entire accounting office, my next job was with an employer that had a DB and DC plan and I also worked with the health insurance. My current job is Benefits Manager handling all benefits, in addition to several HR generalist functions. Administering the Retirement Plan is just one of several hats I wear!

I started out as a secretary, then staff accountant, then controller, then when I couldn't stand dealing with numbers anymore I got into HR. I'm glad I made the change, but people are crazy and sometimes I wish I was back doing accounting...

My degree is in Music-Performance. Not many jobs available in that field. I was working at a non-profit organization that had a poor pay scale, even when moving to different jobs within the organization. I couldn't survive on the salary (plus a part-time job). I saw my current company's ad that was through a temp agency. Just starting with my company I had an $8,000/year pay increase! 20 years later, I'm still here and couldn't be more thankful for the opportunity!

I majored in linguistics in college and never even thought about retirement and industry in the same sentence. Then I got a job as a legal secretary, moved up to paralegal and was involved in the mid-80s in the appeal of an ERISA case before the 4th Circuit (our side lost). I found the issues fascinating and managed to parlay that experience into a job in the Institutional Trust Dept. of a regional bank. From there I worked in institutional trust operations, learning participant recordkeeping, trust reporting and reconciliation, pension payroll, federal tax reporting, etc. Because I didn't know it couldn't be done, I designed and ran the first "fund of funds" offered by my bank in the late 80s. As my husband moved our family around, I also worked as a third party administrator. Finally I ended up at a large law firm as a paralegal on their ERISA team. There I learned that "that's the way we did it at the bank" was not a good enough explanation for how something should be done and learned to actually read the Code and the Regulations! Who knew? Now my experience in employee benefits administration and operations makes me a very valuable member of my firm's ERISA team and I love coming to work every day.

My career began as a newspaper reporter, then editor which took me to several marketing positions in the financial services industry. But what made me passionate about retirement services is my father's story. He worked for a company for nearly 40 years, and before there was a PBGC his company was acquired and the pension was raided. He did everything right, but to no fault of his own, missed out on the large company pension, making do with a small union pension and Social Security. He did work part time in retirement and told all of his younger co-workers to save as much as they could in the 401(k). My career path brought me to retirement services and my father's story is what keeps me passionate about helping companies develop results-oriented communications plans to help their employees fund a secure retirement.

I received a BFA in Creative Writing and worked in various call centers for many years. I then started working my company's call center, which happened to be in HR (as well as the bottom wrung). I caught the attention of my retirement area and, boom--here I am today.

Keep in mind this was many years ago (before retirement services was cool), but as low man on the totem pole I was 'volunteered' to retirement plan duty. Thank goodness for that!


Put yourself out there, meet people, learn about what they do. You never know, you might be doing that one day.

Be flexible and don't stick with a career path if it doesn't suit you or bores you. Money is nice, but sanity is priceless.

Although it was unplanned, my move to the retirement industry provided me with a more interesting and diverse career than I ever would have imagined.

I tell everyone that a number is a number. Doesn't matter if that number represents a concentration of contaminant or an annual return. The concept that I quit relaying (no one cared or understood) is that the difference between my old job and my new one is 10 to the power 20. I used to work with parts per billion or parts per trillion and now I work with billions.

You never know where a career may lead. A good grounding in a STEM degree, along with some business courses, can be a foundation for many successful careers.

A 22 year old fresh out of college often makes decisions about career which don't make sense later in life.

Pension administration consulting is not generally something you specifically choose to study unless you're an actuary, so I'm sure there are many stories similar to mine.

Never say no. Learn from every experience-good or bad. Keep a sense of humor. Treat everyone with respect-even the pointy-haired boss.

Creating a safety net beneath you by shifting your career sideways, rather than just a single rope, is always a good thing.

Fewer and fewer people stay with the same work throughout their careers.

Verbatim (cont.) 

Ya never know where it's gonna take ya. Enjoy the ride.

For many people the job that they have and the job that they trained for are very different.

Everyone has their own path, based on their wiring. Hopefully they feel satisfied with it.

If you're smart, analytical and have a good work ethic, you typically can rise and excel in any field. Add a sense of humor if you want to stay sane in the retirement industry.

So many times, the career you end up in may not be in existence when you first start. Mega churches were just getting started when I came out of college in 1981 and ministry never entered my mind as a career. However when you can use your education, gifts and talents in a career you are passionate about, it is a big win all the way around.

For most everyone in my generation, the path to the HR field was very circuitous. But, the younger generation has more opportunities to become educated in HR specialties.

Career "Path" is a good word. A path is rarely straight and wide. Paths tend to be narrow and irregular and go unexpected places. Don't be afraid to veer off the career super highway you started out on after college. You cannot be expected at 20 or 22 to know what will engage you for the rest of your life. Take risks.

My interest in finances began in the 8th grade with a portion of a math class that studied the stock market and how it works. I now find reading the Wall Street Journal fascinating. I could not imagine working in another industry -- all interests are perfectly aligned: if workers save more they retire comfortably, while at the same time companies have a productive work force (and can replace retirees with young, lower paid employees), and recordkeepers have more money under management which helps them provide an increasing level of service.

If you aren't sure, exactly, what it is you want to do for a career, don't get anxious about it. There are so many different jobs out there and, so long as you're happy doing what you're doing, who cares what it is!

You might find happiness if you quit struggling so desperately for it.


NOTE: Responses reflect the opinions of individual readers and not necessarily the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.