Retail banking is perfect if you want to learn about investment and help customers

Many students are drawn to banking by the pay, but put off by the prospect of long hours dealing in impersonal money markets. Retail banking offers you the chance to learn how to invest, without losing sight of who is investing.

All graduates in retail banking start on just over £20,000 a year. After that it is up to you. Veterans of graduate trainee programmes go on to lead key divisions within the industry, and in a business that is constantly expanding and developing new products, that can mean big money.

Selection is not as tough as the City, but you still need a 2:1 to get on to most graduate trainee programmes, and even then competition is fierce. Last year 15,000 graduates applied for the 230 places on the Royal Bank of Scotland graduate trainee programme.

Michael Gould, 26, was one of the lucky ones. Gould wanted to move into finance, but without leaving his interest in people behind. He graduated with a 2:1 in American studies from Edinburgh University in 2001. After a year travelling, and doing temp jobs in financial services, he decided to develop a career. As a student he had enjoyed the customer contact of working in retail, and he saw retail banking as a chance to marry his experience of retail and financial work. After a placement in an Edinburgh branch of NatWest, Gould moved to head office to work in marketing. Although he has not returned to branch work, he says the experience helped him understand retail banking.

"Your first 10 months give you a good insight into customer needs," he says. "And in marketing you need to understand customer needs." Now he works in channel marketing, focusing on Premium Customers, high income earners. "I help decide what people are going to want, and how best to deliver that," he says. "Because in retail it's all about customers, rather than corporate financial stuff."

If you are interested in a career in retail banking, but feel you have missed the boat of graduate trainee programmes, there are still plenty of opportunities, as Abid Shakeel, 31, knows. After studying physics at Loughborough University, Shakeel joined John Lewis in 1996, before being headhunted by Lloyds TSB last year. Like many physicists, he enjoyed his subject but could not see a future in it. "I couldn't see myself locked up in a lab for the rest of my life," he says. "I was more inspired by working with people."

Shakeel's retail experience has stood him in good stead for his new position as local director of Lloyds TSB, overseeing the branches in his area. "The challenge in retail is keeping customers and staff happy," he says. "There's no difference coming in to John Lewis for a kettle or in to Lloyds for a loan, the only difference is the products. The profit is made by looking after customers."

Shakeel was worried about going in to banking with no experience of financial services, but took the plunge when he realised that his ideas would have a much greater impact. "In the UK there are 26 John Lewis branches and 2,200 Lloyds branches," he points out. "I'm able to achieve a lot more with Lloyds."

While Gould and Shakeel are typical of the sector, and the emphasis on mixing financial nous with an understanding of customer needs, there are also plenty of jobs within retail banking which are more strictly focused on an understanding of the money markets. Mellony Bourn, 24, studied economics at Southampton University before entering the graduate trainee scheme at Nationwide building society. Now she works in Nationwide's treasury department in Northampton, borrowing money on the wholesale markets to provide capital for mortgages. The recent growth in debt, and the paucity of savings, has meant that treasury departments are more important than ever. Her job is similar to others in investment banking, but without the stress, the long hours, and the need to move to London. "I wasn't drawn to London," she admits. "I wanted a programme where I would have a job at the end of the scheme, and where you were more than just a number."

Unlike the cut throat world of investment banking, retail banking is a secure career with set prospects. And if you are thinking of making the move in to retail banking, remember: big businesses mean big opportunities. "Retail banking is constantly coming up with new ideas and different aspects," says Bourn. "You're not just a cashier. There's a wide range of jobs because it's so big."