Want to make a good living taking on those renegade trading rascals on Wall Street? That's the charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency whose reason for being is holding Wall Street, and the entire financial investment industry, accountable for their trading and investment practices.

The SEC, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has been around since 1934, when Congress green-lit a federal agency that would better protect U.S. investors in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Almost 80 years later, the SEC's charter remains the same – to "protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets and facilitate capital formation," as the agency phrases it on the SEC web site.

Protecting those investors is a cumbersome, complicated and arduous business. Thus the need for skilled attorneys, accountants, investigators and administrative help at the SEC.

The Advantages
Make no mistake, the "pros" of working for the agency are abundant. For starters, you'll earn:

  • A good competitive salary of anywhere from $50,000 for an administrative services professional to $300,000 for a senior litigation official.
  • Annual leave – SEC employees of one to three years get 13 days of paid leave, while employees with four to 15 years get 20 days paid vacation. If you're with the agency for more than 20 years or more, you'll earn 26 days paid leave.
  • SEC employees also receive 10 paid holidays off annually.
  • Paid health benefits – The SEC offers comprehensive, even gold-plated, employee healthcare plans, which can pay almost 100% of all healthcare costs. A solid life insurance policy, paid for by Uncle Sam (or better yet, the taxpayers.)
  • Full retirement benefits – SEC staffers are also eligible for the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), which the agency describes as a "three part retirement plan: social security, basic annuity and the Thrift Savings Plan. Employees pay full social security taxes and a small contribution to the basic annuity."
  • SEC employees can also be eligible for subsidized student loan payments and child care allowances, and a public transit allowance to promote staffers using public transportation.

The Disadvantages
On the down side, salaries and bonuses at the SEC hardly compete with those in the private financial services sector. For example, while a new corporate attorney at a big bank or investment firm can easily earn $500,000, plus bonus, the annual entry-level attorney at the SEC ranges from $67,772 to $106,125, with limited bonus potential.

Also, geography plays heavily into the equation. According to the SEC, 75.6% of all SEC jobs are located in an around Washington, D.C. (61.8%) and in New York and New England (13.8%). If you're residing in Oregon or Nebraska, among other states west of Pennsylvania or Virginia, chances are you'll have to prepare to pull up stakes and move eastward.

For the record, the SEC has offices in 12 U.S. cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

How To Get In the Door
On-Site Interviews
If you're a college student about to graduate, and have great grades and a polished academic background, chances are the SEC will want to come see you. The agency frequently visits top college campuses (especially law schools) and also frequents bar association meetings and conferences looking for good talent. Check with your college's employment offices for more details, or check out the SEC's jobs site.

The SEC is fairly picky about who they bring aboard. If you have deep experience in the securities sector, especially for law firms, investment or accounting companies and investment industry regulation outfits, the SEC will likely want to talk to you. By and large, the SEC targets, in order of new hires:

  • Legal professionals (about 441 new hires between 2010 and 2012)
  • Accounting and budgeting (about 285 new hires between 2010 and 2012)
  • Compliance enforcement (about 42 hires between 2010 and 2012)

Academic Credentials
The SEC usually targets new hires with a four-year degree, usually with a law or business degree, and some direct experience in those fields for staff positions (usually one year or more.)

Hit the SEC Web Site for New Job Postings
The SEC regularly lists new job posts on its Web site. The agency offers a great tutorial on who they are and what kind of career professionals they're looking for. The SEC also offers job connections on Facebook and Twitter; a rolling RSS jobs feed is also available.

Fill out an Application
The SEC actually makes it fairly easy to apply for the job you want. First, identify the job you want, follow the SEC online application process to the letter and wait for a response. The SEC will respond in a week or so, with an evaluation of your job application. "If you meet the basic qualification requirements, your application package will be evaluated to determine the best-qualified candidates based on job-related criteria, the SEC says on its Web site. "Evaluation procedures vary and will be specified in each announcement. In all cases, the evaluation is based on the application material you originally submitted." If successful, you'll be contacted by the SEC's human resources department to schedule a job interview.

The Next Step
At the interview, the SEC will want to evaluate your ability to be a team player and how to work within a strict workplace hierarchy (the SEC places a big premium on staffers getting along, as they often work so closely together, much more than at a traditional law firm or investment bank.)

The SEC also favors hiring staffers who they've worked with before - usually on the other side of the table in a lawsuit, agency review or other compliance-related issues. Insiders say they mostly earned their posts through networking and professional alliances, so be visible in your workplace, or at college hiring fairs.

The Bottom Line
Getting a job with the SEC isn't easy, but it's surely not impossible, either. Just stay connected with the SEC, work on your credentials and network as aggressively as you can. Do that, and you stand a good chance of building a career at the Securities and Exchange Commission – hopefully, a long and rewarding one.

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