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Is financial planning a path for military vets? Wells Fargo bets it is

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It took about three hours for Wells Fargo financial advisor Ray Palmer to drive from his Army post to his client meetings every weekend. Not only did the constant back and forth take a toll on him physically, but Palmer feared the disconnect would affect business.

“I was so afraid that I’d probably just destroyed my entire clientele and that it would fall apart,” he says. “It actually made it stronger.”

A pressing issue for veterans isn't retiring from the military, says Palmer. Often it's what comes after — restarting a career in the corporate world after years of service can be overwhelming.

Wells Fargo stepped in to make that transition a little easier for retiring veterans.

The wirehouse welcomed 22 active duty members to its corporate office in August as part of a corporate fellowship program in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative.

Wells Fargo is one of over 200 companies participating in the program nationwide and Wells Fargo Advisors is the wirehouse's first line of business to sponsor and participate in the program.

“We looked at this as another avenue to bring on very talented individuals and introduced them to the depth and breadth of the different careers that they could pursue at Wells Fargo,” says Anne Larson, Wells Fargo Advisors’ Next Generation talent program development and business communications lead.

The firm’s goal is to hire 20,000 veterans, Larson says. Plans for the program were introduced in July 2018 and the last of the corporate fellowship and internal stakeholder public relation approvals were finalized in February of this year.

“Then we were off to the races in terms of developing the content and the structure for the program,” she says.

The programs for participating companies last 12 weeks and all applying fellows must have at least an associate’s degree. But the Chamber of Commerce allows firms to create and individualize their own programs, according to Larson.

Wells Fargo isn’t the only firm with veteran outreach programs. Merrill Lynch committed to hiring 10,000 veterans, guard and reservists over the next few years and RBC launched their War to Work program, dedicated to recruiting ex-military personnel.

At Wells Fargo Advisors, the fellows choose one of two learning paths: client experience for those pursuing a career as financial advisors, and client service and support for those more interested in areas such as compliance, information technology and analytics.

Among the recruits, the latter choice was more popular. Of the 22 fellows, six chose the client experience track and 16 chose the service and support track.

The fellows graduated from the program Oct. 31. A new round of applications will open in March for the next cohort. Nearly half of the graduates landed contracts with the wirehouse pending their separation from the military, says Larson. The rest are in the last stages of their interviews at other firms.

Palmer initially joined the Army his senior year of high school. In 1991, he chose to separate from the military after his expiration of term of service. Six years into building a career as a financial advisor, Palmer rejoined the Army Reserve while at Stifel in 2004 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The decision was triggered by a phone call with his brother, a fellow reservist deployed to Iraq in the aftermath.

“I looked at his sacrifice and I said, my brother's over there right now I can't stay home,” Palmer recalls.

As a member of the reserves, Palmer was able to keep his position at the firm and continue building his practice. In the five years he served, Palmer was deployed stateside twice — once in Alabama then in Missouri. On his third deployment to Kosovo he suffered a neck injury that forced him to retire in 2009. In 2015, Palmer joined Wells Fargo in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Despite his six years’ experience as an advisor, before rejoining the Army Palmer says he still experienced difficulty returning to his civilian profession.

Veterans return from a combat environment where they’re preparing every day for the worst, Palmer says. This often makes the prospect of a different career daunting and lackluster.

“It's almost like saying to somebody that they've been on a drug for the last five years and then cutting them off,” he says. “It’s tough.”

Just over 9% of all adults experiencing homelessness in the United States are veterans of the U.S. military, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The top two reasons employers aren't hiring veterans come down to skill translation and skill mismatch, according to a series of interviews conducted by The Center for a New American Security, but it's not veterans skills that are the problem, says Palmer, it's the system.

“If you take a look at our lot of our homeless veterans out there it's because we didn't have anything in place for them to transition them back to the real world,” Palmer says. “What Wells is doing, I applaud it because for what they're doing right now, we'll have one less homeless veteran on the street because of the program.”

Palmer worked closely with the recent graduates, he was invited to share his experiences with the class and even mentored a fellow with a shared history in the Army reserves.

What makes veterans well suited for a career as financial advisors goes back to their military training, says Palmer. “Selfless Serve” is a guiding principle in the Army and Palmer has applied it to his work.

A good advisor looks out for the future of the clients they represent, which is also what veterans do when they serve, Palmer says.

“You always put your troops first, and that’s what you do as an advisor,” he says.

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