Firstly, a confession: I was not an A* student. I do not have 530 UCAS points or a GPA of 94%. I don’t speak three languages fluently. I didn’t attend an elite university in the UK or elsewhere. I didn’t go on an overseas placement from that elite university I didn’t attend to spend time at another elite university overseas. I didn’t participate in a spring internship, a summer internship, or a winter internship. I didn’t know that I wanted to work in banking and then on the buy-side in my late teens. But I do, and more and more people want to too.
Today, I’m a portfolio manager and analyst in a macro fund in London. 15 years ago, I was a recent graduate from a top tier Russell Group University (one of Britain’s top 24 institutions). I was 21 years-old, living with my parents in London, with no internships and no big names on my CV. My only option for getting into finance was as a ‘temp’ in the settlements division of a large US bank.
In 2001, the finance industry was a lot more fluid than it is now. This was pre-Jérôme Kerviel and Kweku Adoboli, and banks were less worried about the potential for malfeasance if they promoted people with knowledge of back office processes into front office roles. I spent three months in settlements before spotting an opportunity to move into a credit research position. The bank had a junior research vacancy and I had the advantage of being in situ. Temping meant that you got to interview for positions that were going internally. It also meant that I was able to read the bank’s research reports and that I therefore knew what I was talking about in the interview – and had the money to buy the suits and shirts that made me look the part.
After three months temping, I therefore moved into a role that set up my career and allowed me to move to the buy-side. Would I be able to do this today? No. Nowadays, the City of London is a very different place. Today, the City attracts the best of the best from everywhere in the world. I recruit juniors for my employer and they’re all A* students from top universities globally.
Do I feel insecure? Yes, when I read about the ‘juniorisation’ of the industry with experienced, expensive, senior staff being let go. Overall, this industry is shrinking. A lot of trading jobs are disappearing as automation takes hold. New skills are needed: speaking a second language is increasingly important – especially if you’re interested in working on emerging markets. The temping route I took into the market no longer exists. The best bet for a young person in my situation today is probably going for an entry-level job in a small distressed debt fund. It won’t pay you for the first few years, but it’s an apprenticeship and you should get some very hands-on learning with industry veterans.
What’s the future for the 30-something ‘veterans’ like me? Can we survive in this industry faced with the inundation of exceptional talent from Asia and Continental Europe? Clearly we need to be at the top of our game and to bring our experience to bear on these difficult markets. But we also need to be modest, and kind. It’s never been more important to be pleasant to people on the way up – you never know who you’re going to meet on the way back down.
*Niall Wagner is a pseudonym