If you’re a university student who wants to work in banking and finance and you don’t have a spring or a summer internship, you might want to avert your eyes. At last week’s rarefied gathering of the top finance students in Europe, attendees were overflowing with intern positions, both past and future.
“I’ve had seven internships,” said one bespectacled student from Frankfurt. “I’ve had four,” said his friend from Milan. Several others had four too. Gone are the days of students kicking back all summer. “Our holidays are three months long,” said one overseas student in London, ” – It would be a shame to waste them.”
The 320 attendees at the London School of Economics’ Alternative Investment Conference may not be typical of the average 20 year-old. They are, however, representative of the sort of 20 year-olds who get jobs in finance- if only because they had to compete intensely to get into the conference in the first place.
“6,200 people applied to come here and only 320 of us got in,” said one Dutch student attendee, proffering his cracked phone screen as proof. “Look – it says so in the welcome email.”
Given the conference’s emphasis on “alternative investments” and careers in hedge funds and private equity, it’s perhaps inevitable that joining a investment bank wasn’t top of most student attendees’ wish lists. Even so, banks might shudder at the extent to which they’ve fallen down the list of desired careers – even among the students who’ve agreed to join them in July.
“Banking is an unattractive industry,” said the Dutch student, who has an offer to join the investment banking division of a major U.S. bank this summer. “The balance between work and pay is not optimal – when you look at the pay per hour it’s just not that great. I plan to work there for two years and leave for private equity – and most of my class are doing the same.”
Most banks have placed restrictions on juniors’ working hours. But students at the conference were suspicious of their efficacy. “Banks stress the 25-day holiday and tell you don’t work all weekend,” said one student, reeling off each bank’s weekend working arrangements, “But you know that there’s really no such thing as a holiday in banking.” Another cited the experience of some Italian friends now working for a bank in London. “They went to Moscow for a weekend and got a call at 3am on Sunday morning asking for them to prepare some documents for 7am.”
For Europe’s top finance students, banks’ image problem goes deeper than the hours though. There’s an ingrained perception that both the work and its practitioners are dull. “I don’t want to be a managing director in a bank,” said the Dutch finalist with an offer from a bank. “I don’t just want to be an advisor. I intend to be a principal.”
“Asset management is more intellectual,” agreed a student from Italy. “In banking you’re just providing a service to clients. On the buy-side you’re investing. You’re actually creating value for the long term.”
To the extent that juniors at the conference were applying to banking at all, it was therefore as a stepping stone to the buy-side. That, and outdoing their peers. “Most of the people at my school have parents with money,” confessed one attendee. “We don’t need jobs. There’s a lot of competitive pressure internally among the students – there’s a guy with a spreadsheet showing how many internships everyone’s got.”
Attendees suggested London’s brand has yet to be dented by the uncertainties surrounding Brexit: the students weren’t going to let a little xenophobia get in the way. “I don’t care about the location, but the job,” declared a student from Frankfurt. “If the jobs are in London, I will go to London.” London’s diversity was another refrain: “Being in London shapes your personality,” said one student, “The rest of Europe just seems a lot more provincial.”
Finally, while banks are losing student talent to the buy-side, they at least have little to fear from technology firms like Google or Facebook. “It’s too late for me to work in tech,” admitted the Frankfurt student. “I’ve focused all my studies and work experience on finance and the only technology jobs I could do are in sales and marketing or strategy. If you’d told me five years ago that these tech jobs would appear, I might have chosen differently.”
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