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Stuck in the Middle: my weeks of dead-end streets

You’ve already read about the plight of the junior job seeker (if you haven’t click here), but it seems the situation isn’t much better a bit higher up the banking food chain.

Below, our new mid-level candidate columnist tells us what it’s really like being 30 and unemployed in Australia. Look out for more of his Stuck in the Middle articles in the future.

Returned from London in March 2009, I expected to find a country experiencing challenging economic circumstances, but one that was nevertheless “avoiding recession”, as the politicians and media would have us believe.

But even in London during the depth of the recession, firms were still on the lookout for good quality people. Before my departure I actually hired several.

Therefore, as a 30-year-old professional with 10 years’ experience in the finance/property industry, I never thought for one moment that I would find myself unemployed, working day-in, day-out to find a new job, but with virtually every avenue proving to be a dead-end street.

Indeed, over a three-month block between 1 April and 30 June, despite continued “relatively positive” economic news, I can honestly say there were only about five positions advertised in my sector across all of Australia, with no doubt hundreds of applications for each vacancy.

I have also spoken to the major Australian banks and numerous second tier ones about potential employment. The latter usually responded that I should now apply for any roles through the parent bank. Yes, apparently the Big Four now control everything, so if they choose not to hire, then none of their subsidiaries will either.

The responses from the various financial employers in Australia have varied, however the typical feedback is simply: “we are not looking to hire at this time” (that’s if you get a response at all).

I have also had several interviews with US-owned banks, only to be told at the last hurdle that “post conversations with our US colleagues, the company has now been told we do not have a mandate to hire in Australia”.

Truth? God only knows. Irritating? Most definitely! How can an executive in the US have any idea whether I would or wouldn’t be a worthwhile addition to the firm? It seems simply short sighted.

However, the most galling response of all actually came from one of the Big Four.

To present the story, let me give you a bit of background to the markets. I understand that Aussie banks are “overweight” in property. They are sitting on a glut of debt, with little chance of securitising any future loans, and are facing massive asset valuation writedowns. Going foward, the prospect of additional substantial negative asset movements within the Australian market is high.

My international experience wasn’t wanted

Having worked at UBS and HBOS in the UK, I understand exactly what the A-Banks must do to ensure they do not end up like their UK counterparts. The market is still some six to nine months behind the UK and at least a year behind the US.

I may be wrong, but I would have thought that working through the most severe and swift financial downturn the UK has ever seen, combined with having first-hand knowledge of the key factors influencing numerous global markets, would be considered beneficial? Apparently not.

Upon interviewing for several roles, I was twice advised that “a lack of recent Australian experience” ruled me out of the running (despite having spent six years working in Australia before spending four years in the UK). In one case I was actually told that I “did not have enough gray hair” and was too young for the position, regardless of my experience internationally.

Whilst this in itself was extremely frustrating, the kick in the guts came several weeks later when the same bank was actually reported in the Australian Financial Review as saying that commercial property markets in Australia were in the process of severe falls. It also said the market had a complete lack on transparency, and it was unsure when it would bottom out.

This more or less suggested that the firm basically had no idea what the end position would be and how exposed it was. I wanted to scream “hello, there are people here who can help you!”. But I suspect even if I had done so at the top of my lungs in bank’s HQ reception, it would have fallen on deaf ears.

If I may be so bold, I would suggest that the Big Four bring on board returning expats (and I’m sure they are returning by the boat load) who have invaluable working knowledge of various asset markets worldwide (it is a GLOBAL ECONOMY after all).

You can’t buy international experience – you actually have to go outside Australia to get it. In the event they choose not to, then we can only hope someone within these organisations has a clue what goes on outside Australian shores.

Comments (16)

  1. These comments ring very true.

    I was in the same position two years ago when I packed up and left London to return home to Australia ready to settle back.

    I was armed with 7 years experience with Gloabl Investement Banks at VP level coupled with a six month stint in New York.

    My expectation was with that experience Australia would be wanting my skills and experience, which in essence they get for free!

    I however very quickly found the opposite. I was told no local experience no job. I was however interviewed at CXo level people who were grey haired and not really interested in anything except waiting for the Old pension fund to kick in.

    What I soon realsied was international experience counts for nothing in Australia. Its a closed shop which is scared of change and what may lie outside of the shores of Australia.

    In the end I secured a job with a Big 4 IB only to find I had to drop 4 levels down, my salary dropped 60-70% to that of London and the technology Programs were 5-6 years behind the UK.

    So Australia is a great place to live great lifestyle etc but so backwards in the finanace/Technology areas..I find myslef packing the family up and heading back.

  2. ooo poor baby!!!

  3. Without sounding rude about it, do you think it could be your attitude that is off-putting to potential employers?
    Confidence is great, but you come across like you’re the messiah, here to save the company. And the whole – I have international experience therefore I am better than anyone locally – mentality doesn’t always sit well with people.
    If the opportunities are better in the UK, then maybe that’s where you need to be.

  4. mate, 12 years in the uk advancing to director level in investment banking. come back to oz and “lack of local experience” is what i got as well. 7 years on all settled in but still sometimes wish i diddn’t bother coming back.

  5. I can relate to what is going on here. I am 37 with loads of experience in marketing within financial services and there are not the jobs out there for peoeple with experience. Companies nowadays want to mold their employees. Another blockage is the fact that recruitment agencies don’t work for the candidate but the client. Always with first interviews recruiters say that they will keep an eye on jobs for you – more like a blind eye! I also can’t understand why recruitment agencies cannot give you proper feedback as to why one misses out on an opportunity.

  6. I hear your frustration

    Your comments are similar to what I’ve heard many of my friends who have worked overseas in the US, UK, & around many deeper markets in Asia. I agree that mgmt of many Aussie co’s have very closed minds & are very particular about the “type” of people they hire.

    Not to hurt you but you need to be understanding too.

    Despite your worldly skills & experience, have you considered the fact that there are many ppl out there who are (potentially) stronger canditates who have been let go in this environmt & may have made it to the top of the shortlist?

    Also, why would a smart person leave a job they securely had in the 1st place, where despite the fact that that country is in recession & the co. was also in a hiring position, they came back here where there is nothing?

    Importantly, the difference in timing of the downturn between countries is not the issue. The fact that it is a GLOBAL downturn is! Even though Australia’s economy has fared better than other countries doesn’t mean people here haven’t lost their jobs.

    A smart person knows when to take risks. A smarter person knows when not to.

  7. I can’t disagree with any of the previous comments. However, discounting the issue of attitude (Just sayin’), in my experience those sifting through the myriad of applications invariably received for senior positions are often ill-equipped to determine whether or not an applicant is worthy of an interview. Or in some cases, merely deserving of an acknowledgement of receipt of their application. It would appear to me that at the early stage of the vetting process, many applications are ‘binned’, either through lack of understanding of relevant experience, or through a perception that the applicant is over-qualified, too young, too old, etc. I can’t suggest that I have a solution to this incredibly frustrating problem many of us are facing right now. However, as we’ve all no doubt been advised many times, networking appears to be one of the most effective ways, if not the only way, of getting a foot in the door – use the people who know you and your abilities. I hate to say this, but ‘Brad’ (above) should probably be thankful that he was even considered for a role more junior to that of his previous position. At least while he’s employed he avoids the hole in the resume syndrome.

  8. you’re obviously smart, I would say ditch banking for a while and go and do something else, it’s only going to get worse when the sharemarket crashes again in the next 2 weeks

  9. My heart goes out with your frustration and am in a similar age bracket, mid level management & I have been seeking for a suitable role with a suitable company for almost 12 months now – with several postgraduate qualifications behind me. It sounds that your skills carries weight to which you must always be proud not arrogant. Equally important is the relationships you might hold in the industry. Relationships are viewed favourably in the decision making process. Partnering all this is the organisation policy, organisation/cultural fit, economic outlook & importantly ‘patience’.

    For example, some companies must advertised but will give precedence to internal candidates (HR succession policy). Recruitment agents might advertised roles that don’t exist to build their portfolio & use to reverse market to creat positions.

    Have you been networking like crazy with the relationships you have here in Australia because it is true at least 80% of the roles are not advertised.

    Property has taken a hit globally but on the up (give 6m).

    Are you clear with the role you are after? If so, you will eventually attract that with a lot of networking and patience.


    32 Y/O Female – Property Funds mgt Reply
  10. mate, hang in there,
    the industry is a roller coaster, move on if it gives you a headache,
    the market for talent has evaporated just like other markets it may not return for some years ie 5++,
    faced with similar but not the same situation, GM one day, feather duster the next, I “dusted myself off” and accepted lower grade positions to stay in the game – ten years on…. i am still in the game, less dollars but at least i am wiser for it and in a postion to ‘leverage up’ when and if better roles emerge

  11. Getting any job is mostly blind luck these days. After 100s of applications a few years ago, i just started talking to a guy on a flight. He said “we need someone like you.” Got a job in Manila. Another guy I met a Starbucks, said “I have some friends in HK looking for someone to fill a management job in Baja Mexico. In the 90s, I quit a job in central Bosnia and just went to the UN office on the Croatia and said “I already have been to Bosnia, do you need a finance manager?” Started that day. Now I am looking again, I bet lady luck finds me in some way. Blind resume get less than 1% replies, recruiters even reply with a form letter maybe 2%.

  12. As the writer of this article, I appreciate the feedback from all. In respect of Angel’s comments re. timing – I have been told my timing has been impeccable (dripping with sarcasm). Giving up a secure job in the UK wasn’t ideal, but when you’re fiancée’s sister has been in hospital for 12 months and your fiancée herself is an emotional wreck, sometimes you have to make the hard choices – global recession or not. Thankfully, this puts not having a job in perspective. It could be worse.

    I stand by my comments re. international experience. It shouldn’t hinder your career progress. Being able to understand the UK and Pan European markets is important – as they influence our own. Being in one of the largest capital markets on the planet (London), I was exposed to many aspects of the industry I may not have been over here, and to be honest learnt a lot from it. Knowledge and experience simply allows us to make better decisions, and therefore should never be discounted.

    Thanks again to all.

    The Authors Response Reply
  13. My expereince is that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well in Australia, and any form of international experience or success unfortunately does not bode well for most Australians returning home (downturn or no downturn). If only we could support, promote or celebrate success like the US and we may just one day shrug off the sad Aussie battler syndrome the massess become indoctrinated with

  14. Just further to your comment – to my comment – I agree with you that worldly experience should actually be viewed as ADDING upside to the growth of companies rather than being a negative.

    Some of the shaprest guys I know in the industry have come from overseas and they bring with them a lot of knowledge which our mkts here would not have otherwise seen.

    Australian employers can be a weird bunch. They won’t employ Australians with overseas experience, yet look at some of the CEO’s they’ve placed in top 100 companies – many have been imported….

  15. My experience as a 30 something laid off from one of the Investment Banks is that they wont hire someone with domestic experience either. I would love to know where this ‘resilience’ we keep reading about in the Australian econmomy is, as I am certainly not seeing any!

  16. Australia has to be one of the most parochial and insular markets I have ever worked in. I just moved from Australia to Hong Kong with a bulge bracket and I have absolutely no interest in going back. While I am for all intents and purposes Australian, I think the Aussie business mentality is terrible and, in all honesty, Australia is a pimple on the ass of the world in global finance (yet Australians believe it is the epicentre of the universe). Way too much arrogance for my liking.

    The other things I couldn’t stand were how slow things were, how people didn’t like to take ownership of their responsibilities and how talent was not recognised to the same degree as it is in HK (tall poppy syndrome couldn’t highlight the general attitude any better). HK is a place where you land a job via networking (unlike Australia, where you go through bloody useless HR all the time)…though, the one difference is you ALSO need to be good to land a job. Australia, on the other hand, is a ‘boys’ club and I have seen too many useless ‘talk the talk but can’t walk the walk’ talentless people in positions they shouldn’t even be considered for. I’m so happy I got out before I turned into one

    Bulge Bracket Banker, Hong Kong Reply

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