Who (still) wants to be a banker?

Johannesburg – Overpaid, reckless, arrogant. And that's just how their mothers feel about them.

The rest of the population takes a rather more dim view of bankers after they nearly sank the global economy in 2008.

But despite suffering an epic public relations crisis, banking remains a hugely appealing career choice in South Africa.

While the image of investment banking may have suffered elsewhere, it remains largely unblemished in South Africa, said Craig Thompson, SA director of international recruitment agency Michael Page.

Interest in investment banking as a career has certainly not diminished.

The number of candidates for the chartered financial analyst (CFA) qualification has increased by 12% this year. South Africa now has double the number of CFA candidates of Brazil, and more than in France and Russia.

The supply of jobseekers – particularly at junior level –exceeds demand, says a derivatives specialist at a major bank. She says a CFA qualification is currently the minimum needed to get a foot in the door, with many graduates offering to work for very little to get experience.

"The bad reputation of bankers elsewhere has certainly not hurt the supply of candidates."

Banking is seen as a secure and stable career option in South Africa, said Vicki Marais-Swanepoel, MD of leading recruitment firm Professional Assignments Group. This is largely because some banking operations are counter-cyclical - in a downturn, skills can be reallocated to growth divisions.

Recruitment in retail banking has been particularly resilient in the past two years, according to a Johannesburg-based recruiter in the financial services sector. Compliance issues introduced by the National Credit Act have kept recruitment on the boil.

Investment banking has had a more difficult time, as dealmaking dried up and the markets buckled during the crisis.

While some mid-level specialist positions – particularly for actuarial and specialist banking and project management – were still being filled, many major financial institutions halted recruitment in mid-2009, particularly on senior and junior levels, said Marais.

New expat hopefuls

Some expats, fleeing the banking implosion in London where the crisis claimed 100 000 financial jobs by some estimates, also entered the job market in South Africa. But many were unsuccessful, according to Thompson.

The situation has improved since the start of this 2010, with financial recruitment in London again booming. According to a BBC report, vacancies in banking are up by a third, with the average investment banking starting salary (£42 000) up 10% compared to last year.

In New York, some recruiters report a 75% increase in investment banking recruitment. Currently, the city has about 429 000 financial jobs – compared to 473 800 pre-crisis.

In South Africa, demand has also picked up, particularly for dealmaking and front-office broking staff, said Thompson.

However, the crisis has left lasting damage in one area: pay.

Where in the past candidates would expect to earn on average 20% more when they switched jobs, the new standard is 10% to 15%, says Thompson.

Lawrence Wordon, MD of SA's biggest staffing firm Kelly Group [JSE:KEL], says sign-on bonuses have virtually disappeared across all industries. Salaries of top candidates are down by between 30% to 50%, compared to before the recession.

A trader says the trend in investment banking remuneration seems to be that salaries have increased, but bonuses and other incentives are much lower.

"Overseas regulation and criticism about big bonuses are slowly filtering through to South Africa. The big banks are certainly looking at salaries versus bonuses."

Another shift is towards output-driven remuneration, with most packages linked to performance targets.

Keeping it current counts

Actuaries and chartered accountants, who can still expect starter salaries of R450 000 a year, remain in big demand in the financial industry, says a recruiter.

Candidates with proven experience in project and risk management are also still popular, said Wordon. "The most important thing is the 'currentness' of your qualifications." He advises that candidates should keep abreast of new trends and legislation through short courses and programmes.

Qualifications in financial science are also in particularly demand at the moment, said Marais-Swanepoel.

But for bright matriculants looking for big money, banking is not the only game in town.

While there is an oversupply of financial candidates, there is a desperate shortage of engineers, she said. Their salaries are matching some of the top earners in banking.

A further perk: they get to enjoy the view from the moral high ground.

 - Fin24.com
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