Accounting a yes, investment banking a maybe for older grads

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Graduate recruitment schemes are usually the preserve of 20-something university leavers. This could be about to change.

The European Union's new age discrimination legislation is due to become law in the UK by December 2006. When it happens, financial services employers may be obliged to open trainee programmes to mature students and people who graduated several decades ago.

The details of the legislation remain speculative, but will be clarified under draft guidelines to be released later this summer. Jane Mann, partner and head of employment law at solicitors Fox Williams, says the guidelines could outlaw recruitment programmes open only to people who have just left university: "A graduate recruitment programme may in itself be indirectly discriminatory because most graduates are young people."

Investment banks: spring chickens only

The legislation is likely to come as shock to investment banks, which have a reputation for hiring sprightly twenty-year olds to work 70-hour weeks.

"To be honest, someone aged 35 to 40 won't even have the stamina to make it through the interview process," says the head of graduate recruitment at one European bank, which currently specifies graduate applicants must have left university in the last 18 months. "People need to be aware what it means to work an investment bank: most people burn out by the time they're 40."

An older person, which in investment banking terms means anyone aged over 28, who wants to move into the industry, is expected to do so after taking an MBA at a top business school.

Nevertheless, there are signs banks are contemplating the impact of the new legislation on graduate recruitment programmes. Earlier this month, several attended a conference on the subject run by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Helen Bostock, a board member of the AGR and head of recruitment marketing at JP Morgan, says most banks remain unprepared. They will need to build on their experiences of hiring older graduate trainees in Europe, Bostock says, where university leavers can be aged 30 and over.

Another banking recruiter says her organisation is looking at withdrawing words like 'energetic' from its recruitment materials. Mann at Fox Williams says this is advisable: "Words that imply youthfulness could be a problem as could recruitment brochures with lots of pictures of young people."

Accountants: open-minded and open-armed

While investment banks struggle to adjust to the notion of hiring older graduate trainees, accountancy firms are already welcoming them with open arms.

Richard Scammell is a 30-something trainee in the tax and technology consulting division of Deloitte. He joined the graduate programme in 2003 after working in the corporate events industry.

He says the allure of tax consulting increased as he got older: "I started to appreciate the benefits of having a secure profession much more than when I was a crazy young thing straight out of university."

Charles Wale is a 33-year old audit assistant at KPMG. He joined the graduate training scheme two years ago after spending five years as a production manager at Procter & Gamble, and a year studying a Masters degree in theology. "I was pleasantly surprised to find there was absolutely no prejudice against older applicants," he says. "There are just very few of us because no one is prepared to take a drop in salary."

Keith Dugdale, director of recruitment and resourcing at KPMG, says under the new legislation graduate recruitment programmes must be open to anyone, regardless of age or year of graduation.

This is already the case at KPMG, says Dugdale: "We are taking more graduates who are older than in the past. They tend to be completely unique - we've had married women who decide to retrain once the children have left home, or people who have been working as a teacher and are looking for a career change."

Sarah Shillingford, graduate recruitment and audit partner at Deloitte, says their scheme is also open to everyone, although few people over 40 apply in practice: "Demand is less: graduate training is not something people want to embark upon after a while."

There are always exceptions, however. At the recent AGR age discrimination conference, one Big Four firm said it received an application for its graduate trainee scheme from a 57-year old. The training programme lasts three years, and the firm has a mandatory retirement age of 60.

Starting again at the bottom: the advantages

  • Better training: Graduate recruitment schemes at large firms offer the possibility of taking an ACA, MBA, CFA or other relevant qualifications.
  • A more secure future: Once you have a real profession, you're less likely to be made redundant (this is not strictly true for investment bankers).
  • Intellectually satisfying work: If you've got a good economics degree but you've spent the past five years trying unsuccessfully to become a sound engineer, a finance traineeship could prove mentally stimulating.

Starting again at the bottom: the disadvantages

  • Lower pay: You're expected to be a 20-year old with few commitments beyond your mates and next holiday in Ibiza. Paying the mortgage and school fees could be hard.
  • Everyone thinks you're more senior than you are: Don't be surprised if fellow trainees initially mistake you for a partner or director.
  • Hard work and commitment: Graduate training programmes are hard work. Few older trainees at accountancy firms study the rigorous ACA qualification in three years, with most studying alternative qualifications instead. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales says the ACA exam can be studied over an eight-year period if necessary, however.

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