IT whizz-kids look for safe haven in banking

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As dot-coms founder, banks, which were having a hard time getting staff last year, are finding that IT whizz-kids are returning, as banking looks an obvious haven in rough weather. Cutting-edge technology and a more upbeat approach are compounding its appeal.

Exciting projects are key to attracting sought-after programmers. The research company Datamonitor predicts that banks' spending on IT will double this year and will total $38bn (€41bn) by 2005.

Investment banks, in fact, have always been at the forefront of technology development. John Turcich at recruiter Norman Broadbent reflects: 'When Sun Microsystems brought out Java a couple of years ago, it went to the banks to be tested out. There is really sexy development work that goes on in banks, but people have been put off by their stuffy image.'

But banks are stuffy no more. According to Mark Dixon at recruitment company Robert Walters, they have loosened up and increased their appeal. To free-thinking IT experts familiar with the inflatable boardrooms of dot-coms, banks no longer present a façade of faceless suits, but one of dressed-down individuals.

Deutsche Bank has been the most explicit in moving towards a more liberal image. In October and November last year, the bank ran a series of adverts aimed at IT staff asserting that 'pinstripes were yesterday'. The adverts were part of a move by the bank to refine its image.

Sally Goldthorpe in IT recruiting at Deutsche says: 'Feedback from recruitment agencies and potential recruits made us realise that investment banks can suffer from an outdated image. We felt we should change that, and the campaign was extremely successful.'

In fact, the move to the middle ground has been mutual. At the same time that banks have adopted more liberal working practices, IT staff are now willing to compromise their urge for 'play areas', in return for financial security. There is a realisation that work and play do not necessarily mix.

Broadbent's Turcich says: 'Banks are about productivity. The cafés and restaurants that they provide are excellent and subsidised, but you will not find a Scalextric toy car running through the office. Banks offer the best systems in the world, and some of the best benefits and salaries. I don't think that they need to offer anything else.'

In fact, while salaries are relatively high (30,000 for entry-level programmers and 150,000 for higher flyers), they are often not IT recruits' first consideration. Former e-business consultant Ian Fitzgerald is typical of those for whom disillusionment with the new economy has prompted a move into banking. As a computer science undergraduate in the US, he attended campus presentations by several investment banks. But put off by their fusty image, he opted for a 'trendier workplace'.

Several months later, he was laid off, and has now found a position with the Bank of Scotland (BOS). He says: 'Money didn't become a factor until I'd already made up my mind that I was going to work at BOS. It was the range of interesting projects on offer that was the deciding factor.'

Despite banks' new-found allure, shortages remain. Economy-wide demand for programmers in web-related programmes such as Java and XML makes a shortfall inevitable.

At the same time, there is growing need for IT experts with knowledge of the business. 'IT is becoming more important. A track record of working with web-based systems and e-commerce will soon be integral to everyone's experience,' predicts Simon Mee at Russell Reynolds.

As IT becomes more central to business processes, there may be a move away from outsourcing and temporary staff. 'Banks are less willing to give exciting work to outsiders,' says Robert Walters' Dixon. This may not always be the case. IT recruiters at Morgan McKinley report that in merged banks temporary opportunities are rising as a result of hiring freezes.

In the current climate, headhunters still play a crucial role in the recruitment of IT staff. This is unlikely to change quickly. 'The internet is a communications medium rather than a complete tool. It's still necessary to conduct specific searches and face-to-face interviews,' says Broadbent's Turcich.

Nevertheless, banks are keen to recruit higher numbers of IT staff online. Morgan Stanley has an interactive recruiting site for e-commerce staff. Recruiters such as Alexander Mann and Robert Walters enable banks to advertise vacancies on 'microsites' attached to their own websites.

Simon McNamara, head of IT for global markets at Deutsche Banks says: 'We would like to increase the number of candidates that come to us directly.'

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