Friday, 10 October 2014

Banks? No, thanks!

"AN INVESTMENT banker was a breed apart, a member of a master race of dealmakers. He possessed vast, almost unimaginable talent and ambition.” So wrote Michael Lewis in his 1989 book, “Liar’s Poker”. Mr Lewis charted the ascent into investment banking of the most talented graduates in the 1980s, a situation that still held true as the financial crisis struck in 2007. Then, 44% of Harvard’s MBAs landed a job in finance; 12% became investment bankers. Yet in the class of 2013 only 27% chose finance and a meagre 5% became members of Mr Lewis’s master race.

The trend is the same at other elite business schools. In 2007, 46% of London Business School’s MBA graduates got a job in financial services; in 2013 just 28% did, with investment banking taking a lower share even of that diminished figure. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the percentage of students going for jobs in investment banking has fallen from 30% in 2007 to 16% this year.
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Since the crisis, investment banks have culled the recruitment schemes through which they once hired swathes of associates straight from business schools. Instead, they rely more on recruiting the brightest undergraduates, in the belief that it is more productive—and better value—to develop cohorts of junior analysts in-house, rather than those with fixed ideas honed on expensive MBA programmes.

It is not just that the supply of investment-banking jobs has diminished; so has MBAs’ enthusiasm for them. Once, they wanted nothing more than to climb a bank’s greasy pole, with the vast riches this promised. But regulation has stunted bankers’ bonuses and, perhaps as important, MBAs increasingly seek the flexibility to switch careers within a few years. Investment banks expect long-term loyalty, notes an MBA who did a spell in banking, whereas students see them as “a stepping stone into private equity or a hedge fund”.

This is one reason why there has been a revival in business-school graduates’ interest in working as consultants. Almost 30% of students at the elite business schools now typically find work at consulting firms. In 2007, 23% of London Business School’s MBAs joined such organisations, last year 29% did. At Chicago the number has risen from 24% to 31% over the same period. Indeed four big consultants—McKinsey, Bain, the Boston Consulting Group and A.T. Kearney—accounted for 19% of the 472 students hired from Chicago’s MBA programme last year.

This should not be surprising. Before investment banks were in vogue, consulting seemed the natural home for business-school students’ talents. The general-management focus of most MBA programmes, and their use of the case-study method, make them ideally suited to the job. An old consulting joke tells of the newly minted MBA sitting at his desk, demanding: “Bring in the first case!”

Whereas banks expect MBAs still to be with them in five years, consulting firms ask recruits: “Whom do you see hiring you in five years?” Encouraging them to think about life beyond the firm has several benefits, consultants believe. It attracts the strongest candidates and it gives the firms a high-powered network of alumni who may become future clients.

For MBAs, the exposure to different industries and the access to senior managers that a consulting job brings are a perfect base from which to launch a new career, says Julie Morton of Chicago Booth. That base salaries for those going into consulting are among the highest for any industry—a median of $135,000, compared with $100,000 for Chicagoans signing up with an investment bank—only makes the choice easier.

Not just in it for the money

Even if investment banks were still able to offer the financial rewards they once could, students’ priorities seem to be changing. Contrary to MBAs’ reputation as breadheads, in a survey by The Economist for our latest full-time MBA ranking (see article), less than 5% said that higher pay was their most important consideration when deciding to enroll at business school, far behind factors such as “to open new career opportunities” (58%) or “personal development” (15%).

Sceptics might respond: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And MBAs’ ostensible disregard for the size of their pay packets must be put into context—a student from a top ten school in The Economist’s ranking will still earn an average basic salary of $118,000 immediately after graduation. Nonetheless, it is somewhat surprising given that they are also likely to have accumulated huge debts. Harvard reckons its MBA can cost $250,000 for two years’ board and study, and that is before forgone salary is taken into account.

Another big beneficiary of MBAs’ loss of interest in banking is the technology industry. Of the top eight recruiters at INSEAD, a business school with campuses in France and Singapore, half now fall into this category: Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung and Google. (The other half were consultants.) The proportion of Chicago MBAs landing jobs at technology firms has risen from 6% to 12% since 2007. At Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is close to a third. “Many students want to be part of an entrepreneurial environment and make an impact, to feel they are building and shaping something,” says Ms Morton.

Tech firms and consultants both appeal to the growing number of students who want to gain the right experience to start their own business. A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, an association of business schools, found that although only 4% of MBAs have entrepreneurial experience when they enter their course, 26% say they want to start companies after they graduate.

Competition for the best students is also coming from the non-bank financial-services sector, notably hedge funds and private-equity (PE) firms. Five years ago it was rare for such places to recruit MBAs straight from campuses. Instead they would often poach talent from the banks. But now several big schools, including Harvard and Wharton, are building formal recruiting ties with such firms.

They are helped by the fact that many students have already had some finance experience before enrolling: 17% of Harvard’s latest MBA class came from a PE or venture-capital firm. Students from other backgrounds are also attracted by the dynamic atmosphere these outfits offer. Michel, a recent graduate of Kellogg School of Management, for example, says PE appealed to him and his peers over banking because the firms are smaller and the work more entrepreneurial and hands-on.

If self-fulfillment is indeed the priority for millennial MBAs, then banks need to do some serious rebranding. “I have never heard anything about the corporate culture of investment banks that sounds like it’s an environment I’d like to work in,” says a business-school graduate who chose consulting. Added to this, MBAs also seem to have discovered a sense of moral purpose. At London Business School the fastest-growing student society is something called the “Net Impact” club, says Lara Berkowitz, a senior career adviser at the school. This means thinking about how to build careers that have a positive impact on the world around them, such as running ethical-investment funds or corporate-social-responsibility programmes.

Attacked on so many fronts, banks are trying to fight back. Some are running campaigns urging graduates not to believe media stories portraying them as greedy or evil. Others are trying to lure recruits by persuading them they will help make the world a better place. Goldman Sachs’s job portal advertises opportunities to work on community projects alongside positions for analysts: “That’s why you come and work at Goldman Sachs, because you can make a difference in the world,” trills its recruitment video.

A few banks are trying to change their culture, taking a tougher line on sexual harassment of female staff and advocating a healthier work-life balance, perhaps even allowing the odd work-free Saturday. For the business schools’ brightest and best, though, all this may not be enough.