Bright-eyed graduates starting their career at some of the world’s biggest banks over the coming weeks are having to adjust their expectations. Unlike their older peers, who recall the excitement of the trading floor and wild weekday nights that rolled into the next day – one former graduate remembers often turning up to work late and “stinking of booze” – this year’s class of banker wannabes will be networking over online pub quizzes from their bedrooms.
While many will be disappointed that their high-flying careers have started with virtual icebreakers that include showing each other magic tricks via Zoom, some university leavers almost had the option taken away from them.
When the coronavirus pandemic first erupted, bank bosses were faced with a question they haven’t had to answer since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Should they cancel this year’s graduate intake? With job opportunities dwindling and banks facing an uncertain future, HR teams were torn over what to do.
“The crisis did raise the question of whether it was a good idea to proceed with bringing in hundreds of graduates, it was a genuine consideration [to cancel],” says an executive at one major bank. “But we decided not to let the pandemic disrupt the start of their career.”
Having pushed ahead with their notoriously competitive summer internships, adapting to the Covid-19 restrictions by taking the programmes online and making them shorter, the world’s biggest banks are now preparing to welcome hundreds of twentysomethings on to their graduate schemes as summer comes to an end.
Viewed as a rite of passage in the industry and a crucial step into one of the world’s best-paid careers, with graduates offered starting salaries of more than £50,000, bank chiefs have decided that their graduate schemes won’t be stalled by the double-whammy of coronavirus and Brexit.
Barclays, where summer interns were once told by a second year analyst to bring a pillow to work as “it makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable”, has already welcomed 450 people into its 2020 graduate programme. All of them have been working from home.
“For most of our graduates this is their first full-time job and we were initially concerned about the practicalities of virtually delivering their induction to Barclays and to working life – which we recognise is a big moment for many,” says Rob Ager, Barclays’ talent acquisition chief. “It’s been one big experiment, but it seems to have worked.”
Barclays’ investment banking rivals UBS, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Nomura and Goldman Sachs have also decided to push on with their graduate schemes as normal, keeping the numbers the same as previous years despite facing mounting pressure to cut costs.
Citi banker Flavio Figueiredo, who organises the US bank’s markets graduate scheme in Europe, says the programme is “one of the most important sources of talent for our business,” underlining the importance of these schemes to banks’ bottom lines months after trading revenues surged to record levels across the industry.
Busy trading desks have offset the dearth of lucrative takeover deals and stock market floats this year, and Figueiredo told graduates in June that “now, more than ever, it’s critical we continue to provide opportunities for the next generation”.
Retail banks, too, are ploughing on with their graduate schemes as planned despite slashing costs elsewhere. In September taxpayer-backed NatWest will add 250 graduate trainees, more than in 2018 and 2019.
The rush of young bankers expected to join the industry in the coming months could help refill the City of London and Canary Wharf, which remain deserted.
Those on Citi’s two-year markets graduate scheme are expected to come into the office from late September while graduates on JP Morgan’s programme will alternate between working from its 33-storey Canary Wharf skyscraper and at home.
Those able to go in will no doubt be eager to meet their new colleagues in person and ditch the online pub quizzes and virtual icebreakers – which at one bank includes asking peers to share interesting stories about themselves such as “can you do a magic trick?”.
Such questions are unlikely to cut it for those hoping to network. As one banker remembers of his graduate days almost a decade ago, the chance to forge relationships during that time turned out to be “instrumental”.