Big things afoot in the City

With the banks in the mood for recruiting, flexible graduates can only benefit
Matthew James is one of that growing band of academically well- qualified people who are helping banks and other City institutions to come to terms with their increasingly complex businesses.

Mr James, 27, who has a PhD in high-temperature superconductors from Cambridge as well as a first from the University of New South Wales, has been working at Deutsche-Morgan Grenfell for the past 10 months. He started as an operations graduate, spending eight months moving around different departments before joining an internal consultancy, called Business Development, a few weeks ago.

Though he is obviously not applying his specific knowledge, he says he is finding his experience of problem-solving and analysis useful, particularly in his current role. The work did not initially meet his expectations. But being given more responsibility and the opportunity to visit the bank's headquarters in Frankfurt has improved his view and he is enjoying himself.

Helen Williams does not have the advanced qualifications that Mr James has. But she is also typical of the increasing numbers of people moving into the operations departments of banks - where they support the dealers and traders - with theoretical rather than practical knowledge of the City. She, too, started work in financial services last September - after graduating from Birmingham University with a degree in banking and finance.

Many of her fellow students went into accountancy, but Ms Williams, 22, wanted to do something "a bit more dynamic". At NatWest Markets, where she is working on supporting structures in the equity-derivatives area of operations, there is the opportunity to study for specialist qualifications. For the moment she is not signing up, and is concentrating instead on building up her experience.

Having grown interested in the field while studying options and related instruments, she had her curiosity fuelled when people working in the City gave a talk at her college.

What makes graduates like these attractive to employers in the Square Mile is the fact that they are more likely to be "change-friendly", says Jeremy Tipper, who runs the banking operations division at the financial recruitment specialist Robert Walters.

It is replacing people who might have worked in the area for a while and grown resistant to further change. Instead of settling for people who have the skills to do a certain job now, they are opting for those who - thanks to a strong theoretical background - have the potential to fulfil a variety of roles.

The rewards can be impressive. A survey by Robert Half and Accountemps, another recruitment consultancy, found that salaries in financial services are running well ahead of the average. Last year, the sector saw a pay increase of 4.3 per cent.

With US and European banks still in the mood to recruit, a wage spiral is developing in both this area and among newly qualified accountants because the Big Six, which have not recruited many trainees in recent years, are fighting to retain those with the greatest potential. As a result, graduates are starting on between pounds 18,000 and pounds 25,000, while the newly qualified can expect as much as pounds 35,000-pounds 39,000.