You'll make it in finance yet

Personality and ambition count for far more these days than a head for figures

So, you've heard about the Barings debacle and SG Warburg's dramatic fall from grace. And you know all about the big accountancy firms' litigation difficulties. But you want to go into finance anyway. What skills do you need?

Curiously enough, pretty much the same ones that you require to do just about anything else. According to a recent survey, personality, ambition and commercial awareness are all rated highly important by prospective employers.

"An outgoing personality may sound more like a qualification required for an air hostess than an accountant," say the authors of Financial and Accounting Industry Research, published last month by Benchmark Research and business publishers VNU. But more than 72 per cent of respondents put it near the top of their lists of attributes. "This may not fit the traditional image of an accountant, but does reflect the realisation in both industry and the public sector that succeeding within modern organisations requires people skills as well as technical."

Noting that ambition gets just a shade less of the vote, they add: "It seems that employers these days look for staff who want to get ahead. Setting one's sights high will appeal to, not alienate, most prospective employers."

Moreover, improvements in the general market for qualified financial staff means that there will be plenty of opportunities for the eager to exploit. And the compilers of the survey, which covered accountancy firms, commerce and the public sector, note the pressure will be on organisations to find ways to retain these ambitious and highly motivated recruits. Having invested heavily in their recruitment and training, as well as contributing to the development of their commercial awareness, employers must seek to satisfy their junior staff by means of "increasingly rewarding roles, fresh challenges and new responsibilities".

Indeed, a recent survey from financial recruitment specialists Robert Half suggests that opportunities are diminishing at larger organisations as they get leaner and use profit-share schemes that reward seniority and long service to hold on to key personnel. Consequently, candidates are more likely to find success at the smaller end of the market, where healthy growth means more opportunities.

Commercial awareness merits a slightly lower vote than the other two - 63 per cent - possibly because, as the researchers acknowledge, it is "an elusive attribute, ostensibly impossible to train, difficult to measure". Nevertheless, it is said to be "eminently useful in differentiating between candidates". Except for, apparently, the public sector, where it is still regarded as not too important.

At the same time, Robert Half says that young accountants could enjoy many openings because their lack of experience - or commercial awareness - is compensated by their youthfulness, and thus enthusiasm, and strong IT skills. Salaries for those in this group have risen by up to twice the average.

This image of increasing opportunities, however, is not limited to smaller organisations. Barclays Bank is this year looking for far more graduates than in previous years. The programme for its regional branch network will take on 70 graduates as opposed to 27 last time, while the management development programme, which is responsible for head office and international positions, will hire 90, compared with 55 last year.

The niche areas, such as technical, Barclaycard and the investment banking arm BZW recruit separately and are also increasing numbers.

The sharp increase in numbers is simply attributable to an improved business climate, says a spokeswoman. Although graduates were still hired during a recruitment freeze stretching back several years, the numbers were small. Now that confidence is returning, it has been thought appropriate to increase the figures substantially.

The bank will take people from any discipline and, like most employers is looking for sound results. But the spokeswoman stresses that the search does not begin and end with academic qualifications.

"We're looking for the rounded individual," she says. Consequently, Barclays takes a close interest in candidates' interests outside the classroom and is especially keen to see signs of other non-specialist skills that might have been picked up at university - things like the ability to get on with people and to work in teams. Sounds familiar?

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