Opening the door to the dealing room

Banks and other financial institutions show no signs of reducing their graduate hirings, says Roger Trapp
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A year that has seen the collapse of the venerable Barings and the once-mighty SG Warburg effectively forced into seeking a marriage of convenience would not appear to be an auspicious one in which to start looking for a position in high finance.

Nevertheless, it remains a glamorous calling. The peaks and troughs in dealing rooms in particular are part of the attraction to many young people who think they fancy a life of aggressive trading by day and champagne sipping by night.

Those seeking a share of those telephone number bonuses, though, should beware. While professionals say the market for jobs in the sector is sound enough, they admit that it is seeing nothing like the activity it did at this time last year.

That is not to say, however, that all is gloom. For instance, Jeremy Tipper, manager of the banking operations division at the recruitment specialists Robert Walters, sees two main trends affecting graduate entry.

First, there is greater availability of industrial placements than before. Although primarily the means by which students on banking and finance and business studies with foreign languages courses gain work experience, this process is also being acknowledged as advantageous for employers.

Typically lasting for 12 to 15 months, such placements are proving more appealing to recruiting consultants' clients because the people on them typically go into positions that are often difficult to keep filled. This is because the roles can be fairly limited and therefore not particularly attractive to those looking to advance in their careers.

Moreover, says Mr Tipper, the length of the placements means that there is the possibility of overlaps of staff in the summer.

Second, banks and other financial institutions show no sign of reducing their graduate hirings. While recruiting at a more senior level is affected by such short-term factors as volatility in the markets, graduate recruitment is decided rather further in advance and tends to remain immune from "hiring freezes" and the like.

On the other hand, the opportunities for graduates being hired on an ad hoc rather than the more usual formal basis appear to be reduced by downturns in the market and the like - despite the fact that most of those involved in the area agree that the old-style, once-a-year milk round has been largely replaced by year-round recruiting.

But even here, recruiting specialists report that they are able to place candidates who graduated last summer, particularly if they have picked up experience either while gaining their degrees or through temporary positions since leaving university.

As in other areas, temping is proving increasingly popular among employers and individuals alike. It is joining the industrial placements offered to students on sandwich courses as a popular route into permanent positions, largely because it generally evades the restrictions on headcounts that are becoming increasingly commonplace.

The attraction for employers is that it enables them to take on people to handle sharp increases in work at a time when the overall performance of the company might be preventing wholesale hiring of staff. In addition, it gives them the chance to assess the standard of people without going through the time and expense of putting them in permanent positions.

Mr Tipper points out that many financial institutions cannot recruit permanent staff even though activity in such areas as derivatives, for example, remains buoyant. "We've put people in a lot of positions starting on a temporary nature. They have generally gained experience on industrial placements or in summer vacations," he adds.

The clearing banks and larger financial institutions have long been familiar visitors - alongside the leading accountancy firms such as Coopers & Lybrand and KPMG - at many of Britain's universities. But they are increasingly being joined by smaller organisations. For example, First National Bank of Chicago is reported to be hiring about 15 graduates a year. The requirements of these institutions are as diverse as their activities.

Investment banks - especially those from the United States - are generally highly specific about the sort of people they are looking to take on. Students from Oxbridge, as well as the likes of Durham and Bristol, with finance or economics-related degrees tend to fare best. On the other hand, National Westminster Group, which hires about 300 graduates a year, is more open minded, especially when recruiting for its UK retail operation.

Jonathan Bond, graduate recruitment manager for NatWest UK, which covers the bank's retail operations, says it is prepared to look at people who have studies at any university in seeking its annual take of 150 recruits. "We don't just rely on a small group of universities," he adds.

The reason is that - unlike, say, the accountancy firms - it is not largely concerned with students' ability to pass exams. While the accountants - and just about any type of employer these days - say less formal "interpersonal skills" are important, the banks are increasingly putting them towards the top of the list.

"We're looking for the skills to talk effectively with customers and to advance in the future," says Mr Bond.

What that amounts to are factors like leadership, the ability to communicate, decisiveness, the ability to solve problems and team-building skills. As Mr Bond admits, these are not the sorts of things that are discovered in an interview.

Instead, the bank puts the people it likes the look of through assessment centres where they have to carry out written tests and group exercises. The idea is to see how they react with other people and whether they negotiate with each other. "In essence, we're trying to get all our graduates to take on junior manager positions very quickly," Mr Bond explains.

The reward for passing is not the job for life of old. This may be a less exciting side of the finance world than bond trading or corporate deal broking, but the risks end up being somewhat similar.

"It's very difficult to map out a career now," Mr Bond says. "We're not saying you'll have a 40-year career. Instead, we're saying come to us and you'll learn a lot and have the options to do well inside or outside the bank."