How to land the most lucrative financial jobs
Financial services is easily one of the most competitive areas when it comes to finding a job. This is even true in regard to entry-level positions, as it’s almost entirely unheard of to jump into and build a successful career in the industry without starting near the bottom and working your way up. The desks of financial services professionals around the world are littered with resumes of students and executive wannabes hoping for a break that they believe will set them on course to be young and rich “masters of Wall Street”. The highest-paying jobs, and therefore the most competitive, in financial services — including chief executive positions and hedge fund manager positions — are even harder to land.
Financial services encompasses a broad variety of firm types that provide financial services to individuals, businesses, and government entities. The financial services sector is a key component of developed economies and has become more important in the past half-century. It made up only 10% of all business profits in 1950, but as of 2023, financial services companies accounted for nearly 50% of total business profits. That’s one major reason that it offers many of the highest paying jobs.
Worldwide, publicly traded financial services firms rank first in both total earnings and total market capitalization. Conglomerates that offer a virtual marketplace of financial services in one location are the largest players in the industry, but there are still plenty of major, successful firms that specialize in providing just one type of financial service, such as personal investment advice.
Retail banking is still the cornerstone of the financial industry. Retail and commercial banks provide deposit accounts, credit and debit cards, personal and business loans, and mortgages. They also facilitate money transfers and offer foreign currency exchange services. The current trend in retail banking is offering increasingly specialized financial services to each customer, tailored to their individual needs. The highest paying jobs in retail banking usually belong to loan officers and major corporate executives, such as the chief financial officer (CFO) and chief risk officer (CRO).
Investment banks provide major financing for corporations and governments through both equity capital markets (ECM) and debt capital markets (DCM) by handling stock and bond issues for their clients, as well as arranging general debt financing. They also support the purchase and sale of companies through activities such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A), representing clients on both the acquirer and target company sides. M&A is typically the business that brings in the most money for investment banks. Therefore, the highest paying jobs at investment banks tend to be individuals who can successfully land and manage large M&A deals.
Insurance companies are another major component of the financial services sector, representing a subsector of financial services that is focused on providing individuals or corporations with tangible ways to manage risk. Insurance firms also assist investment bankers in assessing and underwriting the risks associated with the capital markets financing they provide for their clients. The final wall of risk protection is provided by reinsurers, which are companies that sell insurance to other insurance companies. This type of insurance is designed to offer insurers financial protection against catastrophic losses. The highest paying jobs in the insurance industry remain those of the agents who sell insurance policies.
Brokerage firms, which include such well-known names as Charles Schwab and Fidelity Investments, facilitate the buying and selling of securities for their clients, and also offer financial advisory and money management services. Brokerage firms also typically create and offer investments in their own mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Portfolio managers who create and manage such funds occupy the highest paying jobs at brokerage firms.
Hedge funds and other private investment partnerships primarily serve the investment needs of high net worth individuals (HNWI) and large institutional investors, offering investment and money management services in return for management fees and a percentage of profits from the investments. Successful hedge fund managers are among the highest-earning individuals in financial services.
Private equity and venture capital firms provide major investment capital to start-up businesses or to businesses needing large amounts of financing for a major growth project such as expanding their business internationally. Private equity investors offer funding in exchange for a sizeable equity interest in, or profit participation with, a company. Like hedge fund managers, managers in private equity firms are some of the highest-paid individuals in the financial sector.
There are also a number of other companies that operate in specific areas of the financial services sector, such as accountants, tax preparation firms, payment processors that handle purchase transactions, and software developers that create investment portfolio management software and other financial software programs for financial services firms or their clients to use.
The first challenge in landing one of the highest-paying jobs in the financial industry is the sheer number of hopefuls aspiring for the same positions, a number that tends to climb when the market is booming. When the market is down, the number of open positions drops considerably, but so does the level of competition, the number of people looking. Your first tip in securing one of these prized positions is that you may fare better looking for one during a bear market.
If your dream is to land a coveted position in the financial services sector, then it’s imperative that you pursue your dream in the most effective way possible. In this guide, we’ll run down the six highest-paying financial industry jobs for you, and also offer a guide to help you increase your odds of securing one for yourself.
Let’s start with the tips for landing any of these choice positions.
For some prized financial services jobs, higher education is a virtual necessity. Candidates for certain roles may need an MBA or some other finance-related graduate degree in order to even be considered.
If you’ve already earned a degree in a different major, don’t stress out or give up. Financial services companies are more inclined to look favorably on individuals with computer and traditional science majors, such as physics and engineering. Even if your major falls into the humanities category, it’s not necessarily the end of the road for your millionaire career as a financial services professional. You can bolster whatever your background education is with additional coursework or continuing education studies in math, accounting, statistics, or specific financial studies. Your demonstrated eagerness to keep learning may be just the boost you need to set your application apart from others.
Most candidates applying for high paying positions in the financial sector all have excellent GPAs. In order to stand out, you need to step up your game. There are a number of ways to go above and beyond in a way that makes your qualifications stand out from the pack.
Earning a designation will definitively set you apart from other candidates, as it shows your commitment and drive for excellence. In fact, many modern hiring managers are turning toward skills-based hiring and recruitment that prizes skills over degrees.
If you’re considering alternatives to traditional higher education, you may want to pursue a practical and professional designation such as the Financial Modeling and Valuation Analyst (FMVA)™ program offered by CFI.
Being investment and finance savvy requires more than mere numerical smarts. Regardless of the position, you’ll be required to read a lot. And while understanding and analyzing financial reports will most likely be a key part of your job, you should also be aware of, and be fluent in, economic policies, events, and major business trends at home and abroad.
Stay on top of financial and social trends, labor issues, and political events. Almost anything that’s financially newsworthy could eventually have an impact on the capital markets and ultimately on whatever financial services firm you end up working for. Invest in subscriptions to key financial periodicals, such as The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, The Financial Times, Forbes, Fortune, and Futures, and keep yourself up-to-date with events and stories from around the world and about the global economy.
Consider specializing your knowledge in order to gain an additional competitive advantage in the job marketplace. You can tailor your reading and study so as to develop yourself into an expert on, for example, China’s economy, a particular industry or market sector, or specific types of investments, such as private equity investments, real estate, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
Nearly all of the highest-paying jobs in the financial services sector require a high level of what is known as “soft skills,” such as leadership and communication skills (including public speaking). While you may have limited opportunities for on-the-job training in such skills as you’re working your way up the financial services firm ladder, there are other avenues by which you can acquire and hone your soft skills. For example, you can gain valuable leadership experience by joining local volunteer organizations and taking on roles that enable you to lead and work in a team environment. Develop and refine your public speaking and presentation skills by joining a speech club like Toastmasters International or by taking a class in public speaking at a community college.
The fact that these positions are among the financial services sector’s highest paying jobs offers substantial insight into what moves the industry and, specifically, what helps most to ensure a financial services firm’s success. The high dollars offered to CTOs tip you off to the major importance of technology in today’s financial markets. All those impressive trading algorithms developed by analysts aren’t worth a thing until they’re successfully integrated into a company’s computer system or trading platform. A good CTO is usually a person who manages to combine high-level executive skills with the specialized knowledge of a “computer geek.”
It’s doubtful whether CCO was among the highest-paid financial industry jobs as recently as 20 years ago. But one thing that’s risen to new record highs more frequently than the Dow or S&P 500 Index in the recent past is the level of government regulation of the financial services sector. Record-keeping, reporting, registration, and all other areas of compliance have steadily increased and have become more complex as government regulation of the industry has expanded dramatically with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in the United States in 2010, along with similar legislation in other countries. Just keeping up with all the various legal requirements for financial firms is a challenge. If you have both a head and a knack for cost-efficiently dealing with regulatory requirements, then you’re well-suited to be a CCO.
Outstanding CFOs and CROs are critical to a financial services firm’s success because in the end, yes, it really is all about the money.
The CFO is the executive with primary responsibility for overseeing all the financial operations of a business. CFO duties include tracking assets and liabilities; managing cash flow, debt, and the company’s capital structure; and perhaps most importantly, financial planning for the company’s future growth. Accounting, financial planning, and financial modeling are all among the necessary skillsets for a CFO.
A CRO position is especially important to financial services firms. He or she is the watchdog for any financial events that might threaten, first, the company’s profitability, and second, its financial solvency. The CRO monitors the firm’s investments and also works with the CCO to ensure that the firm is not threatened by any shortfalls in legal compliance. CRO educational backgrounds vary from accounting to law, but the best CROs are almost inevitably highly analytical, with superior problem-solving skills and simply a strong, intuitive feel for risk assessment.
Keep in mind that any three-letter title usually comes with strict educational and experience requirements. You may have to spend a decade or more working as an analyst, managing director, or in other positions, but diligence and hard work can eventually land you a spot on an executive perch. If you’re a bit short on the educational side for whatever position you’re angling for, use the time while you’re climbing the corporate ladder to boost your academic credentials. Most major financial services firms will be happy to fund your studies to become more qualified, and thereby more valuable to them, as an employee.
Chief executives, regardless of their industry, typically take home the biggest paychecks at the end of the day. This is particularly true in the world of finance. Competition is incredibly fierce at the executive level, due in large part to the potential yearly earnings, and also due to the fact that such positions are especially hard to come by.
Let’s get a little more specific. If you’re thinking of fighting for a top-tier position, you might want to knock chief executive officer (CEO) off your list. Unless you’re founding your own financial services firm, CEO positions are notoriously difficult to attain, especially if you don’t have an extensive history with the company, come from a top 15 business school (Harvard, Yale, Wharton, etc.), and have a deck full of backroom network connections to put a good word in on your behalf with the Board of Directors.
You can more easily aim for one of these other top-tier management positions, all of which happen to be among the highest-paying jobs in the financial industry: chief technology officer (CTO), chief financial officer (CFO), chief risk officer (CRO), and chief compliance officer (CCO). You might not make quite as much money as the CEO, but you’ll still make a bundle, regularly augmented with performance bonuses, in any of these other highly coveted spots.
If you’ve always dreamed of being a hedge fund manager or other investment professional working within a hedge fund, then your dream has been to make the most money in the financial industry. The average hedge fund investment professional can make as much or more as some of the other roles (i.e. CRO, CFO, etc.) combined.
Even relatively junior employees in this arena — for example, an analyst in charge of overseeing the hedge fund’s investments in one particular industry, with less than two years of experience — still command large six figure salaries.
The hedge fund managers who make the most money are, logically enough, those with the best performance. Most hedge fund managers are paid based on some variation of the “two and twenty” plan: they receive a 2% management fee, applied to the total funds under management, plus 20% of the fund’s profits. So the key to making multi-millions as a hedge fund manager is, ultimately, to be an outstanding investment strategist. That’s also the skill most likely to get you in the door at a hedge fund – being able to demonstrate the ability to generate significantly above-average investment returns.
Many hedge fund managers are former successful portfolio managers at brokerage or investment companies.
Beyond being a very savvy investor, being a successful hedge fund manager also requires superior interpersonal and sales skills. It takes being both personable and persuasive to convince a few billionaires or pension funds to let you manage a large chunk of their investment capital.
Now you know where the top compensation dollars are in the financial services sector — the six highest-paying financial jobs. There is always a level of competition when it comes to finding a job, but that level increases significantly when talking about the highest paying financial career positions, the ones that have the potential to make you a millionaire fast.
Regardless of which one of these high-level positions you may be aiming for, the one constant requirement for getting the job is that you need to find ways to set yourself apart from other applicants. Make sure that you put together the educational support and work experience necessary to bolster your bid and help you to land that dream position in financial services.