Fast Track: Oodles of money? Don't bank on it

Yes, there are highly paid, glamorous jobs in banking - but the competition is stiff, writes Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Culture
Banking is a career in money; not only the chance to spend other people's, but ample opportunity to make your own fast buck.

So the legend runs - and, unsurprisingly, many graduates who win a coveted place in the City think they will be laughing all the way to work.

But are the opportunities really so appealing? The chances of earning the sort of money most people can only dream about are diminishing, says James Baxter*, who began as a trainee at a London-based European bank last year, after travelling in South America and taking an MSc at Durham.

He agrees that investment banking is still seen by graduates as one of the most alluringly lucrative careers, and concurs that the rewards can be big.

But he warns: "The chance of getting a Porsche within the first two years has gone out of the window. There's increasing competition, lots more players and lots more regulations; it's more cut-throat because the American banks are squeezing the margins down to practically nothing. There's not so much money to be made, and more people are chasing after it."

European banks, he perceives, have a different ethos to American banks. Of the latter, he says: "You sell your soul to them and work every minute that God gives - and you have little job security."

Working days in investment banks are renowned for their unpredictability. As a spokeswoman for one graduate recruiter puts it: "You get in when the market opens and go home when the market closes. It goes in fits and starts; it all depends on whether you are working on a deal."

Graduates who do win places on trainee schemes are likely to have few illusions after surviving up to four rounds of gruelling interviews. Many will have been attracted by glossy brochures, success stories and high- figure salaries at which media and even accountancy contemporaries can only drool. A freshly qualified graduate can expect to earn from pounds 26,000.

But while many are called, few are chosen. A spokeswoman for a leading international bank based in London claims that British students may already be one step behind their Continental counterparts when they apply in their final year, because they are less likely to have had work experience.

"A lot of people we take on are from the Continent. In the UK, internships are really a new thing, but for Continental students it's often part of their course, because most of them study finance.

"We tend to find UK graduates are naive; they haven't done their background research, even though we provide brochures and websites."

During interviews, candidates must demonstrate basic mathematical skills and the ability to learn new ones. Increasingly, they are presented with real-life scenarios to solve, as well as psychometric tests. "You have got to know, quite literally, what the job you are applying for is," says James Baxter.

Training given by many banks will cost thousands of pounds per graduate, lasting for several months; it may include public speaking, financial and business analysis, economics and accounting, as well as jet-setting around the world.

Forward-thinking banks such as Goldman Sachs report that there is already an established trend for graduates to go off and take an MBA after a couple of years - after which they may or may not come back.

The bank has several in-house training options, including an analyst programme and a New York-based associate training programme.

Sarah Edgington, 26, who joined the company two years ago, says: "I liked the meritocracy of Goldman Sachs before I came, and now I know there really are no ceilings to your progress. You are responsible for your own success."

Graduates may not realise that fluency in a foreign language is likely to aid their prospects. One trainee, Geoff, who works in a London investment bank, advises learning Spanish. "If you're working with emerging markets, you're going to need it, and it's not a difficult language to pick up."

He adds that most of his banking colleagues were well-travelled before embarking on their careers. "It's not so much that they take you on because you have travelled, although you may be posted to some pretty wacky places for long periods of time.

"But the sort of people who get these jobs are the sort of people who travel anyway; they are the type of people who are independent and think on their own two feet."

Many who get into investment banking look down their noses at retail or high street banking - one graduate dismisses it as "a bit Mickey Mouse". But while the financial rewards may be less attractive (from around pounds 16,000 upwards), the sector provides a popular career option for those who want to develop their management skills.

Alison Hooper, assistant manager of graduate recruitment for NatWest UK, says: "We used to take on 150 to 200 people a year, but had quite a high fall-out rate. Now, with a much smaller programme for 50 people, we find the graduates seem happy to stay around for longer."

Instead of attending a presentation and a traditional face-to-face interview, graduates applying to NatWest - who need to be armed with an upper second degree or master's degree - send off for a brochure which includes a self- assessment form. "It's designed to get them to think, `Are we right for them?' rather than, `Am I right?' If it deselects a few people, it serves our purpose," says Ms Hooker.

Next is a telephone interview, conducted at the graduate's expense, and successful candidates are invited to a selection centre. If they are made an offer, they can expect formal training for four to six months, after which they will get a particular job within the company.

Says Ms Hooker: "Strictly speaking, it's a nine-to-five job, but the majority of people work longer. It's quite pressurised in terms of the volume of people coming through the door. We can't ever guarantee you will get a particular position at the first stage, but after 12 or 18 months you can apply for jobs within the organisation." She adds that graduates often apply for both sectors of banking to keep their options open.

Among those who opt for the fast stream of investment banking, there is a growing awareness of the disparity between the myth of City life and its reality. But the chance to juggle billions - and gain either renown or notoriety in the process - remains a glittering prize. As James Baxter puts it: "There's a surprisingly high level of responsibility and client contact early on. You're doing real deals and seeing things happen, and you do get a buzz."

*Name has been changed.