Too late for investment banking? Try accounting

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If you're a student graduating this year and you haven't already found a traineeship in investment banking, it's probably too late. Now could be the time to consider accountancy as an alternative; you could turn such a move to advantage later.

While investment banks typically close their doors to graduate applications in October or November, the so-called Big 4 accountancy firms continue welcoming applicants into spring and beyond. 'Recruitment is typically from April to May,' says Hélène Ratte, human resources (HR) director for Europe at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. 'But it's never too late to apply.'

Long application deadlines are not the only advantage of accountancy as a first career. Landing a job in accounting could mean spending six months in the sun: Deloitte allows UK graduate applicants to take a year off before joining, with 15% of trainees take them up on it.

More importantly, in some countries training in accountancy is seen as a solid foundation for a career in investment banking. Even if you don't make it as a banker now, you could well do so in future.

UK: Investment banks chase newly-qualified accountants

James Heath, managing director at recruitment firm Greenwich Partners, specialises in placing newly qualified accountants in investment banking roles. He says most go into equity research, corporate finance, and private equity: 'Right now, the chartered accounting qualification is an excellent springboard to a front office position in an investment bank.'

To make the transition into banking, accountants will need first time ACA passes, a 2.i degree and exemplary A level passes, says Heath. Those with less glowing qualifications will find it hard to penetrate the glamorous (and well paid) jobs in the front office: 'If you have a 2.2 or you don't pass first time, you'll probably have to work in product control or financial control, which are more standard accounting roles.'

Heath says the best time to move is straight after qualifying. But banks have been known to take accountants with two or three years' post qualification experience. In the interim, he says it's best to work in a corporate finance or corporate restructuring role at an auditor.

A word of warning. If you plan to use accounting as a stop gap for an investment banking career, don't mention it at interview. Keith Dugdale, head of HR at KPMG in the UK, says the firm tries to avoid hiring would-be bankers. 'We don't like to train people in the expectation that they will leave to join a bank, and we put a lot of emphasis on testing career motivation during the selection process.'

France: Accountants want grads, but would-be bankers must move fast

In 2005, the Big 4 will be among the most important hirers of French university graduates. This year, Ernst & Young plans to hire 700 graduate trainees and 300 interns (stages), compared to 600 trainees and 275 interns last year. Ratte says Deloitte plans to hire 270 this year. According to a January article in L'Express magazine, PricewaterhouseCoopers plans to hire 375 graduates this year, and KPMG plans 240.

Ratte says French applicants fall into two categories: those who want to be accountants, and those who want to be financiers. She says accountancy is an excellent preparation for both: 'There is no better training than joining an auditing firm.'

But Denis Marcadet, an investment banking headhunter at Vendômes Associés in Paris, says accountancy trainees who want to become bankers will need to hurry: 'Moving into banking is only open to young accountants with two or three years' experience. After that, it's too late.'

Italy: High grades and haste

Alberto Gavazzi, a financial services recruiter at Russell Reynolds in Milan, says Italy's investment banks will consider trained auditors for careers in mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Like their counterparts in the UK, auditors moving into banking will need excellent exam results. 'If you haven't got a summa cum laude, it will be hard,' warns Gavazzi.

Once again, accountants who want to be bankers can't afford to take it slowly. 'There is a brief window of two to three years after qualifying,' says Gavazzi. 'After that, it's too late.'

US and Germany: What accountancy advantage?

In the US and Germany, accountancy is a less established route to a banking career.

Mike Fisher, a consultant at Analytic Recruiting in New York City, is currently advertising for a CPA to become an associate in the financial institutions equity research team of an investment bank. But Fisher says this isn't typical: 'This is a unique situation where the research function of a major sellside bank is looking for someone with detailed experience of analysing accounts. It's very unusual.'

The same goes for Germany. Right now, Frankfurt banks are keen to hire second of third year associates with five years' work experience, says Andreas Weik, a financial services consultant at recruiter Hofmann Heads. But Weik says accountants are not on banks' target lists: 'Unfortunately it's not easy to move from accountancy into banking in Germany.'

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