High hopes, harsh reality

John Kivel is tired of candidates with unrealistic expectations seeking IT jobs in financial services.

“People still have that taste in their mouth from last year, when companies were salivating from the sight of your [networking] certification or one to two years’ experience,” said Kivel, recruiting manager at Boston-based WorldStreet Corp., which makes systems that match securities buyers and sellers.

“A lot of these people went to corporations and were paid (US)$65,000 to (US)$70,000 for one year of experience,” Kivel said. “Now they’re jobless. They’ve set their bar at that level and think they deserve another bump when they come to us, when reality is, they’re probably a (US)$55,000- to (US)$60,000-a-year candidate.”

The softening of the economy has brought big changes to the financial services industry. The freewheeling days of the past couple of years are over. Companies that are still hiring are strategically filling key technical positions.

Companies are also choosier about who they bring on board. Then there are those firms that are cutting back on projects.

“Financial services were on the forefront of adopting new technology and e-commerce,” said John Barrett, an executive director at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., an executive placement firm in New York. “What we are seeing is a major retrenchment. Companies are either shutting down [on-line divisions] entirely or saving certain aspects, like the technology, and embedding that back into the existing organization.”

Not all recruiters agree with Barrett. “A lot of recruiters [in financial services] only see what hits their desk, and they define the industry as what hits their desk. That’s not reality,” said Patrick Sylvester, managing director at Philadelphia-based recruiting firm Banister International. “[Many financial services firms] had so many openings going into this scenario, they still have open [requisitions].”

Much of the hiring is happening directly, without the use of recruitment firms. For would-be employees, that means focusing on contacting companies directly through Web sites or, better yet, getting referrals from current employees.

At Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. in New York, the changing economic climate is causing the company to re-examine a rush of projects from the past couple of years and to focus more heavily on business priorities.

“There is more careful scrutiny, due to market conditions, on our IT spending,” said Ken Brzozowski, a vice-president in the technology unit of Merrill Lynch’s corporate and institutional client group. “We’re not necessarily cancelling all projects. We’re slowing down and delaying some that may not be critical.”

Job candidates should also expect salaries that have deflated from the highs of last year, when traditional financial services firms were worried about losing people to Internet start-ups.

“People were getting greedy last year,” notes Michelle Patterson, president of X-cavate Research LLP, a Houston-based human resources research firm. “You can’t get as greedy as you were last year.”

For example, C and C++ programmers can expect US$60,000 to US$80,000 per year, depending on geography and experience.

A tighter market doesn’t mean that someone without financial services experience is left out. Kivel said he’s looking for candidates with a financial services and investment technology background, but he finds such people only 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the time.

For job hunters who aren’t at the top of their game, Jan Lee, CEO of Breck Technology Services Inc., has some advice. “Increase your skill set where you are, bring value to your current position, then, when things settle down, move on,” said Lee. Breck Technology is a Charlotte, N.C.-based human resources consulting firm.

“Start planning on your exit,” Lee suggests. “Look at new technology, get training in that area, and look at companies you might want to work for.”