Against banking internships – give the kids their summer back

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It’s getting into that time of year when London is filled with the perennial sounds of an English summer. Leather on willow (or if it’s an Ashes series, leather on stump). Sausages sizzling on the barbecue. And the weary sigh of a posh kid in a new suit going “I just feel like I’m not really making use of my degree”. Yep, the interns are coming back again.

It’s an arrangement that seems to be set up in the best interests of absolutely nobody. A lot of college kids spend what ought to be the finest summers of their lives, sweating away in London and New York at the time of year when the city is at its smelliest.  The banks pay money which could, pro rata, finance a pretty good management consulting project in return for work of close to zero value. And dozens of investment bankers face a choice between three equally undesirable options. You either spend time and effort in coming up with a challenging summer project unrelated to your real work. Or you bite the bullet and actually let a twenty year old rugby player loose on a few millions of client deals.

Or, like most of us, you come up with half an idea and some binders from last year, and put up with a gloomy bored presence sighing at the end of your desk for five weeks, occasionally looking up to ask a bizarre question. Heaven forfend, by the way, that you ask the person on the desk with least real work to help out with a bit of photocopying or make a tea run; in the brave new world of human resources, asking an intern to get some coffee is a grave faux pas.

How did it come to this? Once upon a time, there was a thing called “campus recruitment”. People interviewed for jobs in banking during their last year at university, on their campuses. Then, when they got their results, if they had passed, they started work as an employee. They were usually on six month probationary periods, so you could fire them if you’d made a mistake.

But MDs and Directors got tired of wasting their time going round the country, and they weren’t always very good at interviewing.  So a system was devised whereby the candidates could come into the office and waste our time there, with the interview process spread out into an agonising getting-to-know-you exercise over a period of weeks. There might be some net saving of time and effort but I doubt it.

And there are real consequences for the industry. Since the recruitment process came to be dominated by internships, it has been entirely focused on a particular type of person – the type of person who knew that they wanted to work in an investment bank early enough to get their applications in for internships in their second year.

That’s not a representative cross section of society; most 18-year olds haven’t even heard of the investment banking industry, let alone decided on a career in it.

The people who apply for internships are generally very impressive in their academic results and extracurricular accomplishments. But there’s a certain similarity to their worldview, which is a result of a competitive treadmill of internships that robs them of any chance to have experiences that aren’t resume-enhancing. Graduate programmes today have achieved the feat of consisting of an impressively diverse group of young people, all of whom think exactly the same.

We should give the kids their summers back. It might not be possible to put the genie back in the bottle – now that this is the normal recruitment process for top talent, no bank is going to want to be the first to go back. But it wouldn’t be hard to shorten them, to a fortnight at most. Turn internships back into what they were meant to be – short work experience placements, not pretend summer jobs. All we have to lose are a whole load of bound Powerpoint projects that will be dumped in the bin five minutes after the intern class of 2018 leave the building.

Dan Davies, is a senior research advisor at Frontline Analysts and a former banking analyst at Cazenove, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

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