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“I help non-middle class students to get jobs in banks”

Ordinary student banking job

In theory, banks are meritocracies. In reality, they’re increasingly filled with elites. Whether you look at Wall Street, or at the City of London, banks are increasingly home to people who’ve studied at top universities, who’ve achieved multiple internships, and who come from the upper middle classes.

This final point is hard to quantify with any certainty, but will soon become clear when the results to a study into the social class of young front office bankers are released later this year.  In the meantime, observation suggests plenty of analysts and associates in front office jobs have been privately educated, and the suspicion is that – much like Jonathan Mathew at Barclays – they got their initial work experience thanks to their parents’ contacts.

In the UK, efforts are being made to combat privileged students’ advantages. They’re being led by John Craven, a former director of structured products and cross-asset solutions at Merrill Lynch and SocGen, turned maths teacher, turned chief executive of upReach, an organisation that helps undergraduates from less-privileged backgrounds to secure top jobs. We asked Craven how he does this; this is what he said.

How many people are Upreach and now many people do you work with?

John: “We’re a charity with a team of eight people. We’re based in London and we’re currently working with 528 students at universities in the UK. They’re mostly Russell Group Universities, although not exclusively so.”

What kinds of top jobs do you help people into? 

John: “We cover the professions – banking, asset management, consultancy, law, but our students are particularly interested in banking.”

What kinds of students are eligible for your help?

John: “At the moment, you need to have attended a UK state school since age 11, to have a parental household income of less than £35k and to have received at least three Bs in A level, with a grade C in English and maths at GCSE. We also help people who were in care or had free school meals.”

Why do these students need your assistance?

John: “The academic research suggests that there are lot more students from less privileged backgrounds who get into good universities, but that this hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in those students getting the top graduate jobs when they leave. For a lot of the students we work with, it’s quite a major achievement simply getting into university. When they arrive, their focus is on settling in and achieving a good degree. They’ll start thinking about work experience later than students from more privileged backgrounds. They also typically lack the range of extracurricular activities that privileged students have and this can work against them too.”

How do extracurricular activities help more privileged students get banking jobs?

John: “Extra-curricular activities help build soft skills like leadership and confidence. If you’ve been at a school where you’re used to participating in sports or the debating society then when you go to university you’re more likely to get involved in these activities in your first year. You’re then more likely to take a leadership position in these societies or teams in your second year, and to then find it easier to land a banking internship. It’s cumulative. Top employers want to hire people who’ve got involved, but at many schools the culture is not to get involved and the range of activities on offer is narrower.”

Does a lack of work experience inhibit less-privileged students from getting banking jobs?

John: “Most of the students we work with do have work experience of some kind. But it’s usually a part-time job in a bar or supermarket to pay the bills. They’ve worked to live. By comparison, more middle class candidates might have work experience at somewhere like Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch before they even get to university. They also understand the application game: they know that you need to go the insight events, to get a spring week, to get an internship and to convert that internship into a full time job.”

And how do you help people exactly?

John: “We start with a one hour interview where we run through an assessment based around a graduate employability framework created with partners including McKinsey & Co. This looks at things like leadership, confidence, and career knowledge – the things students need to get the top graduate jobs. We work with them to broaden their career horizons and to investigate the kinds of careers that might be open to them given their interests. Often people will self-select out of certain industries if they attend careers events and can’t see any role models. We work with them to raise their aspirations and make them feel like they can work for a bank or a top law firm, or to become a barrister if they want.

We then assemble a career action plan, which we check-in with them on at least twice a term. Each associate has a programme coordinator who manages this.

We have skills workshops where students come along to mock assessment centres or participate in games to improve their confidence, and oral activities around their CVs to improve their commercial awareness.  We also run video forums where someone from our partner employers will focus around a particular topic in the news around banking in finance which might come up in an interview – Brexit being the obvious one at the moment.

We recently helped a second year student at Durham University. He’s from Hackney in London and didn’t know much about investment banking. We worked with him to explore what banking is and to build up his CV so that he could apply for insight days and internships. Through our support and through his own hard work, he secured a placement year at Goldman Sachs for 2017…”

Photo credit: blyjak/istock

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