Career choices cut by half

UNIVERSITY graduates with degrees in finance, law or accountancy face fierce competition securing a job this year as redundancies increase and employment opportunities dry up.

While they should be celebrating their transition from student to professional, they are facing less than half the usual number of advertised positions in their chosen field.

The Olivier Job Index reveals job advertisements for university graduates in the banking and financial services sector have dropped a staggering 73 per cent in the past year.

For accounting graduates, the job pool has shrunk by 64 per cent, while the number of advertised legal jobs is down 53 per cent.

Simone Mears, a director with the Profusion Group, which specialises in financial services recruitment, said redundancies and cost pressures remained rife and graduate recruitment would be flat. “There’s not a lot of new recruitment going on purely in response to the economic climate,” she said.

“Most groups are looking at their business models and trying to minimise the redundancies.” In recent years, large employers have locked in the best students prior to graduation with offers of employment.

There are now reports some companies have delayed the starting dates, while others are reassessing the number of positions they offer in 2009-10.

A spokesperson for Macquarie Group said that there had not been a reduction in the number of graduates in this year’s program, but “there may be some changes to start dates in a few isolated incidences”.

In the banking sector, Westpac, National Australia Bank, ANZ and Commonwealth Bank are all honouring the offers they made last year, but this only represents a pool of about 650 graduates.

National Australia Bank alone received 10,000 applications for this year’s program.

Those people outside of a graduate program will be more affected “simply because at a time when we’re seeing redundancies across many financial services companies they are less likely to hire the numbers they have hired in previous years in order to keep costs low”, Ms Mears said.

Commonwealth Bank talent and development executive general manager Sam Sheppard said graduates in this position should see it as an opportunity to extend their skills set.

“Organisationally, we value very strong experiences — be it in the voluntary sector or demonstrating leadership capabilities — in many other means than in a professional role,” she said.

Meanwhile business leaders have warned companies that to scale back raw talent recruitment may be setting themselves up for a fall when the economy eventually recovered.

HLB Mann Judd Sydney human resources partner Matthew Gardiner was concerned there would be a “gap” if a certain number of accounting graduates were not employed by the firm each year. “Some of our competitors have cut their programs or delayed the starts of their graduates and cadets,” he said. “We actually have a recruitment hold in other levels, so we aren’t recruiting senior accountants, but we’re progressing with our graduate and cadet programs because we see that training them will be important for us in the next two to three years.”

He suggested the economic downturn may work in the firm’s favour when it comes to retaining quality accounting graduates.

“Over the past couple of years we have increased our graduate programs because we noticed that our graduates were getting some qualifications with us and then would be tempted to travel overseas to work in Britain, or they would be tempted to go into the investment banking sector.

“We will be monitoring over the next year or two whether there has been a change to that pattern,” he said.

“The investment banking industry is probably going to be less attractive for accountants than it was now that people have seen what can happen in that sector.”

Two of Australia’s best-known law firms, Allens Arthur Robinson and Blake Dawson, were also taking the long-term view that they could ill afford to cut graduate recruitment.

The legal sector turned away young talent during the Keating-era slowdown of the early 1990s, according to Blakes deputy managing partner Helen McKenzie.

“It takes you four to five years to recover from that,” she said.

At Allens, resourcing head Kathryn Whyte-Southcombe said: “We’re looking to develop our legal talent and have a pipeline for the future.”

In 2009, Allens would take on some 90 graduate employees, representing about 10 per cent of its total number of lawyers, a proportion that had remained steady over the past few years, she said. “We look to our graduates for our foundation,” Ms Whyte-Southcombe said.

Blakes had no plans to reduce the number of summer clerkships (33 in Sydney this summer) or graduate employees.

Most clerks, in their penultimate year as law students, are offered positions as graduate employees, which they must take up within 12-18 months of graduation. Ms McKenzie said Blakes was considering whether to narrow that window of opportunity to help manage recruitment at a time of economic uncertainty.

Article contributed by Sara Rich, Bernard Lane