GUEST COMMENT: It’s time to get realistic and apply for the job in the back office

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Sad man again

Let’s face it: banking has lost its shine. Under the searing heat of the sovereign debt crisis, bonus pools have become puddles and we are all at risk of redundancy. Throw in the constant banker-baiting in the press and it’s hard to see where the appeal lies.

It’s curious therefore, that so many young people seem keen to get into this industry. Naïve graduates and Big Four migrants continue to queue in their thousands, but are being kept in a protracted limbo.  Opportunities are much reduced. And when the market picks up again (if it picks up again), banks’ first choice will surely be the experienced junior bankers they only recently let go.

What can you do if you’re an aspiring banker whose aspirations to work in front office roles like sales and trading or M&A have been thwarted?

Give the back office a chance

The back office of an investment bank (the behind the scenes, administrative and support functions) is typically portrayed as the East Berlin of the investment banking world.

As an employee within the finance department of a bulge bracket bank, I would like to tell you that this is not the case.

I will happily testify that it is a good place to work with great career opportunities, friendly co-workers, decent pay and good working conditions. Plus best of all right now it has relative job security and in my opinion the people I work with are generally nicer than those in the front office.

If you want to work in a bank, there are so many diverse areas you can choose, including finance, IT, or marketing. In short, the back office is a great place to learn your trade. You can either carve out a solid career or use it as a springboard to move on to a more dynamic area of banking.

Yes, in terms of remuneration it does suffer when compared to the perceived nirvana of the front office but right now it is the only realistic entry route into banking for anyone without a bulletproof CV.

Be warned

So, maybe you’re sold on giving the back office a go. But for those of you that have Machiavellian plans to use it as a stepping stone to the front office, I offer two pieces of advice.

Firstly, if you're interviewing for a role please, please, don’t mention your front office ambitions. I know of two acquaintances that should have been sure-fire choices for roles in investment banks’ finance teams, but who believe they were scuppered by being too candid in interviews about their aspirations. After all why hire and train a candidate who only sees the role as a stopgap.

Secondly, when you're applying you should be neither complacent nor arrogant.  Trust me, I work with a lot of smart people: first class degree holders, Oxbridge graduates, PhDs and CFAs. Yes, we generate zero revenue but if you’re fresh out of University with nothing other than a degree and lofty ambitions of becoming a banking hotshot you’re in no position to look down upon anyone.

Still not convinced?

If you’re remain dead set on going straight into front office then trust me it’s going to be a long and hard road. I

If you have prior banking experience, a good network and can sell yourself then you have a chance.

However, if you lack any of the above, obtaining a back office place on a banks’ graduate scheme may be your only option. Even these places are heavily oversubscribed and you will be competing with the brightest and best candidates from not only the UK, but from all over the world.

In the end the choice is clear, are you going to carry on daydreaming about being a star trader or dealmaker at Goldmans or are you going to be realistic and look for opportunities to lay down some firm banking career foundations? I leave it up to you.

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