Insight - Class of Covid-19: Next generation of bankers fear for future


Reuters interviewed executives at 14 financial firms, including some of the world’s top banks and asset management companies. Most said that, while about 80% of their trading floor staff were back in the office, flexible working was in place with employees spending some days at home.

IT wasn’t the introduction to high finance that Adi Patel had once anticipated.

The stage fright of walking into the imposing offices of a US$607bil (RM2.5 trillion) asset manager in the heart of a historic financial district? Pandemic era: a five-day induction on Microsoft Teams.

The rip-roaring intensity of the trading floor replete with sharp-suited money managers? Not quite – hunched over a laptop with comfy clothes in a flat-share. Client lunches, and perhaps swapping stories after work with fellow graduates embarking on first steps in finance? Not likely.

The pandemic has put paid to many initial expectations of the financial industry’s Class of Covid-19.

That group includes new recruits at finance firms around the world, such as 22-year-old graduate analyst Patel and two dozen or so others hired by Aberdeen Standard Investments.

Six months on, Patel has only been in the office in central Edinburgh a handful of times; like many companies in Britain and beyond, Aberdeen has kept employees largely at home since last March.

“I wasn’t worried that the training was virtual, I was just upset that I didn’t get to go into the office. Because as a new joiner, as a grad, we want to make those connections, ” he said, adding that the virtual training went smoothly.

“It’s that little social chat that matters. It’s very much that sort of thing we’ve missed out on.”

His worries are unlikely to have been soothed by the words of David Solomon, a titan of finance as CEO of Goldman Sachs, who called working from home “an aberration”.

Working from home may be here to stay for many finance workers, to a greater or lesser extent.

Reuters interviewed executives at 14 financial firms, including some of the world’s top banks and asset management companies. Most said that, while about 80% of their trading floor staff were back in the office, flexible working was in place with employees spending some days at home.

On the surface, remote working has worked well in the industry. Deals turnover hit a record US$2.4 trillion in the second half of 2020 according to Refinitiv data, while Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and many others reported stellar first-quarter earnings.

But for the star rainmakers and fund managers of tomorrow, the change is disconcerting. And senior executives are worried about these juniors missing out on important experience that could constrain their careers or see them leave for rivals.

Traditionally, new starters learn on the job, observing deals being clinched and performing tasks under supervision. Industry events and client meetings, often in other global finance hubs, offer opportunities to network.

Kunal Shah, global head of emerging markets trading at Goldman Sachs, said that while trainees learned by performing tasks such as compiling reports, booking completed trades or writing commentary, senior traders were forced to take back many of those responsibilities during lockdown.

“It is much harder to ask the junior to help with a task when you are sitting at home, ” he added.

“We had to remind managers to put the juniors in such situations so they can learn.”

When lockdown restrictions have been relaxed in Britain, many junior traders wanted to return to the office “because they learn from that apprenticeship culture”.

One key concern is that screen-sharing and video meetings, however helpful, may be a poor substitute for in-person training, especially for those keen on a trading career.

“There’s a reason that trading desks have evolved as a centralised hub at the heart of investment teams, ” said Tom Stevenson, head of EMEA equity trading at Fidelity International.

JPMorgan’s committee for the development of junior markets employees has held video calls to enable trainees to chat with global team members, said Sophie Warrick, EMEA equity research head and co-head of the committee.

Others such as UBS and Deutsche are using a hybrid approach. In Hong Kong, UBS’ 49 graduate trainees can mostly go into the office, but in many other centres around the world the training programmes are virtual, according to Maria Chan, the bank’s Asia-Pacific head of human resources.

That could create a two-track system.

Warrick said employers would need to wait and see how somebody who had been virtually trained went on to develop in their role, “having not had the in-person training that someone else has had”.

At Goldman Sachs, according to Shah, managers tried to virtually replicate the trading floor vibe for the benefit of younger staff. — Reuters

Dhara Ranasinghe, Saikat Chatterjee and Scott Murdoch write for Reuters. The views expressed here are the writers’ own.

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