Careers in the private sector

To give yourself the best chance of securing a role you must focus on applying to one industry and know that industry like the back of your hand.

If you are in the second or final year of your economics degree and interested in securing an internship or graduate job you will be faced with a bewildering array of options. Submitting applications across a variety of industries should be avoided because it is not time effective. Below is a list of sectors that seek to employ economists every year. This list is by no means exhaustive but it should give you an idea of where to focus your time and efforts.

Investment banking

Advantages:

  • Very high starting salary
  • Variety of work
  • The opportunity to network with senior management

Disadvantages:

  • Extremely competitive
  • For many roles ‘who you know’ is more important than ‘what you know’
  • Many of the banks have target universities
  • Very long hours with weekend shifts seen as standard
  • High-stress environment
  • Low job security

Every year investment banks draw a huge number of applications from economic students for their internship and graduate schemes. With starting salaries of £40,000+ and bonuses, it is easy to see why. Moreover, many of the positions offered by investment banks are tailored to the skills of an economist. For example, a position on the trading floor requires graduates to analyse a particular firm or sector, weigh up costs and benefits and understand risk. All of these skills come naturally to students from an economics background. Furthermore, economic students are often much more aware of current issues surrounding the economy as well as the banking sector. This is why so many of the positions within this sector are given to economists.

However, any undergraduate considering a career in investment banking should not do so lightly. It will require an enormous amount of time and effort. If you do have your heart set on this career path then the earlier you begin tailoring your CV the better. Most graduates who gain a position at an investment bank do so through an internship. To gain an internship your first-year academic results need to be impressive. This will mean that your first-year experience will be very different from that of your best friend who is studying film.

And remember, even if you spend all three years of your university life achieving fantastic academic results, being president of the banking society and playing five different sports, this may not be enough to secure you a role at an investment bank simply because you go to the wrong university or lack the connections. Having said that, do not be discouraged from applying to this challenging, exciting and highly rewarding industry. Just be aware of the sacrifices that need to be made in order to be successful.

Professional services

Advantages:

  • High starting salary
  • The opportunity to complete a professional qualification
  • Large graduate investment

Disadvantages:

  • Very competitive
  • Many roles are exam orientated

When someone mentions the professional services industry the first thought in every undergraduate’s head is ‘The Big Four’ (PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young). Much of the work these big four firms undertake, as well as others in the industry, does depend on the economic climate and regulation. Economists’ knowledge of both of these factors makes them especially attractive to professional services firms.

One of the major benefits of this industry is that firms make a large investment in all of the graduates they take on. Part of this investment is to put all of their graduates through a professional qualification. These qualifications will be taken alongside your day-to-day responsibilities and can last from three years (ACA and CIMA) up to six (actuarial exams). Students studying economics will often get exemptions from some of the exams in the first year of these qualifications. Economists will also find their degree very relevant to the modules they have to study in subsequent years of these qualifications and the projects their company will place them in.

Studying for a professional qualification may not be to the liking of some graduates who want to leave their exam-taking days behind them. Moreover, if you fail any of your exams twice your contract with your employer may be terminated. This can be very stressful for graduates. However, getting one of these qualifications on your CV does look very impressive.

If you are interested in following this career path make sure you spend a lot of time researching the service line you want to apply for and each firm’s core competencies. Both of these factors will be heavily scrutinised in any interview you may get.

Multinational companies

Advantages:

  • Good starting salary
  • High job security
  • Under-applied to by economists
  • Large number of roles
  • International work opportunities

Disadvantages:

  • Graduates may feel detached from senior management
  • Work may not have much impact

The types of organisations that I would include under this heading are Unilever and P&G, but the list is long. For example, most organisations in the food industry, the car industry and the aviation industry will have employees working for them across the globe.

These firms have many roles which particularly suit economic students such as finance, strategy and research. During a graduate placement, students will often get to experience more than one of these business areas. As well as the opportunity to experience different roles, some of these organisations will offer students time in one of their foreign offices. Moreover, since economists tend to apply to the first two sectors already mentioned in this article, competition between economic students for these placements is relatively low. However, don’t think that you will be able to walk into one of these companies. There will still be fierce competition from students from every academic background.

There are negatives to working in a large international organisation. First, as you will likely be buried underneath many layers of hierarchy there could be limited scope for innovation or creativity. Second, the work you are doing may seem far away from the mission statement of the organisation. Despite these concerns, ambitious young economists should give more consideration to a career in this sector.

Others

Asset Management (M&G, Baillie Gifford) – Similar to investment banking with slightly less pay and slightly less competition

Retail Banking (NatWest) – Lower pay than its glamorous big brother but far fewer working hours

Market research (Nielsen) – An area of work where economists can put econometric and statistical theories into practice

U.K. firms (Sainsbury’s) – Many U.K. firms will offer management schemes perfect for those economists who want to become future leaders

Advice

Regardless of the industry or organisation you would like to work in, there are some general tips to help you succeed:

  • Start thinking about your desired career as early as you can. The best way into many organisations is through an internship, which requires students to work hard during their first year.
  • Be realistic. Do not apply to investment banks if you have three Bs at A-level; you will just be wasting your time.
  • Once you have chosen a sector, do as much research around that sector as possible. Good places to start are your family and friends, the university careers service and online.
  • Expect to be disappointed. When you are applying to U.K. internships and graduate schemes you are competing with the best students from around the globe. The quicker you can learn to deal with rejection the easier the whole process will become.
  • Be persistent. Applying to jobs while studying towards a degree can be very difficult, especially when your job applications don’t appear to be going anywhere. As long as you meet the minimum requirements and do your research you will get an interview eventually, so apply to as many companies as it takes.
  • Try to enjoy it. Interviews and assessment centres can be nerve-racking and daunting prospects. But people are rarely as intimidating as you expect. To make these experiences enjoyable and rewarding, think of each interview and assessment centre as an opportunity to learn about yourself and the people that work there.

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