London/New York: With pay levels and reputation under attack, investment banks are changing tack to lure graduates, dumping brash presentations with get-rich-quick appeal in favour of earnest pitches about responsibility, diversity and building a career.
“Previously there would have been a mass-marketing approach, and we would have found it very easy and been very attractive to students,” said Chris Jackson, head of graduate recruitment at Royal Bank of Scotland.
“The important thing we are trying to get across is that this is a career now. This is not a kind of short-term option that may have been perceived in the past.”
With Britain’s central bank saying recently that it hoped bankers’ pay would eventually fall to a level closer to that of doctors or lawyers, recruiters from the big investment banks are having to reshape their message.
“Students know compensation is down at the banks, and they know the lifestyle, and it’s rigorous,” said Sunshine Singer, senior associate director of career management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
“The trade-off is not worth it as much as it used to be if they are going to be working that much and not be compensated for it. This is a different generation.”
A few years ago, the emphasis was on the money.
As a young Oxford undergraduate, Joseph O’Keeffe was schmoozed with caviar, wine and the promise of the good life.
“The initial recruiting phase is very much like selling you a lifestyle, and it’s like you want to be this person who shops at Selfridges and wears Armani suits and Hermes ties,” he said.
“Just like everything in high British society, it’s all very understated and implied, but it’s like blatantly obvious.”
Sick of working up to 100 hours a week and being yelled and cursed at by senior colleagues, the 23-year-old quit this year.
“You are the bottom of the pile,” he said.
Unleash your potential
Since the financial crisis, investment banks have lost some of their shine for the cream of the college crop.
At Harvard Business School, only seven per cent of the Class of 2012 went into investment banking, down from 10 per cent in 2010. At the Wharton School of Business, the number has fallen from 25 per cent to 16.6 per cent.
Part of it is a squeeze on places; Goldman Sachs shut its flagship two-year analyst training programme earlier this year. But graduates themselves are being drawn to other sectors such as technology and private equity.
“Partly it’s that investment banks themselves are not as aggressively seeking MBAs as they were back in the good old days,” said Ray Soifer, a former banking analyst and Harvard Business School alumnus, who tracks where graduates take jobs.
“But investment banking in many respects just doesn’t look as attractive as a career.”
That said, it remains the most lucrative graduate job in Britain, with average starter salaries of £45,000 and applications for investment banking posts this year still managed a slight rise — 0.8 per cent, according to High Fliers Research, an organisation that tracks graduate recruitment.
But with graduate unemployment rising to nearly one in five, and compared with other financial services jobs, standing still represents a relative decline.
Retail banking jobs, with average starter salaries of around £30,000, climbed by nearly a third, and accountancy applications rose 16 per cent, according to High Fliers.
“For investment banking, we’ve seen more interest this year from European countries, and the number of UK applicants has gone down slightly,” said Dee Clarke, recruitment manager at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML).
“I think it might be more due to the fact that investment banking as an actual business has perhaps not had as much activity and has not been in the press in terms of volumes of deals.”
When it comes to scandal, however, investment banking has been grabbing the headlines, as in the trial of former UBS trader Kweku Adoboli, who was jailed for seven years for fraudulently running up losses of $2.3 billion.
In the summer of 2002, Adoboli did a 10-week summer internship at UBS that went so well the bank offered him a job and made him an ambassador on the Nottingham campus.
Back then, investment banking carried a lot of bragging rights in college bars.
Four years into a crisis partly fuelled by high finance’s ill-advised property gambles, and the language has changed.
“Ermm, reckless, maybe? No, risky. Risk-taker,” are the impressions that Russell Jones, an 18-year old history undergrad at Cambridge University, has of investment bankers.
Jones was one of hundreds of students attending a career day at the university.
Along with blue-chip UK companies including L’Oréal, BP and Centrica, big banking brands such as Citi, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Morgan Stanley laid out their stalls with jars of sweets, free leather card-holders, smiling representatives and inspiring slogans.
But Citi’s “Unleash your potential here” and Morgan Stanley’s “You have talents” left Jones unmoved. He is more interested in opportunities in the public sector, which saw a 12 per cent increase in applications this year, despite paying half as much as graduates starting in investment banking, according to High Fliers.
Banks are necessary
In its presentations, Royal Bank of Scotland, which was saved from collapse by a £45 billion state bailout in 2008, talks about what it is doing to turn itself around.
There is also a big drive to attract female graduates in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Women are seen as more risk-averse and better team players.
“We’ve had a particular focus over the last couple of years on gender diversity because of some of the challenges that banking has faced,” said RBS’s Jackson.
Lucy Wark, a student of politics and international studies at Cambridge University, can see the merits of banking.
“If you’d talked to me a year ago, I’d have had a lot less of a nuanced view. I would say it is high paid, I would say it is high stress ... but at the same time, I think banking is important and necessary in an economic system,” said the 20-year-old Australian.
O’Keeffe, meanwhile, has no plans to return to investment banking. His heart is set on medical school.
Currently working as a healthcare assistant, he jokes about leaving the heating off to save money.
“I worked in finance and I realised at the end of the day, if you don’t ... get out of bed in the morning to do something that you enjoy, what’s the point of life?” he said.