Amid the huffing and puffing over the future of banking and the careers of people who work in it, one group has been all but invisible: those of us who went into finance to do what we love.
A recent acquaintance with an impressive public-sector work history sought guidance on transferring her policy and financial analysis skills to capital markets. Her request came as a surprise. Many of my professional contacts are looking to make (or already have made) a jump in the opposite direction, from private-sector finance to government work. And while this person's White House experience might get her a look from a financial company, her background lacks specific financial experience or skills that appear transferable to the kind of role she sought.
"If you want to get into finance because so many others are getting out and you figure that creates more opportunity for you....Or simply because finance traditionally pays more than other professions...Then you're probably on the wrong track," I responded. "Best bet is that finance is down for the count.... Probably, it will never regain the stature or pay disparities (over other professions) it held earlier this decade. And there's a good chance its pace of recovery will lag other industries over the next decade or so."
I went on to point out that career switchers face higher hurdles than either new entrants to the workforce or laid-off journeymen seeking re-employment. With the bulk of promotable entry-level jobs reserved for new college graduates, she might have to start off in a support role - a sand trap from which few ever escape to front-office careers.
The Media Take the Lazy Road
I was in for another surprise. "In 2002 I graduated from my MBA program with similar economic conditions," she replied. "I was told it would be an uphill battle for new graduates to enter finance. I accepted a budget analyst position (in a) governor's office. I have done well in politics and appreciate all of the opportunities but I have always regretted not pursuing finance."
Why does her answer feel so counterintuitive? Perhaps because of the mainstream media's obsession with cliché-ridden "news" stories that portray all bankers as consumed by greed. Early this week, for instance, The Wall Street Journal's popular "Laid Off and Looking" blog carried a headline, "Reflecting on Life Post-Lehman: Money Doesn't Matter." Guest author Spencer Cutter, a senior VP in leveraged finance who was let go a year ago, wrote, "When I was working on Wall Street, all anyone ever talked about or cared about was money... Everyone had a 'number'... it was your targeted liquid net worth which, once achieved, would allow you to tell your boss what you really thought about him as you walked out the door." Yawn.
There's no denying the attitude Cutter describes is widespread on Wall Street. But the media distort reality when they take the lazy road and paint that viewpoint as the only one out there. Alongside the stereotypical greedy bankers just waiting to make their "number," are many - perhaps more - once-and-future finance professionals doing what we love, or seeking an opportunity to do it again, or even - like the government employee discussed above - willing to make sacrifices (even take a pay cut) to break into the profession.
To hear the media tell it, anyone who does that must be a rat jumping onto a sinking ship.
Step Up and Be Counted
Maybe most finance pros who love their work occupy support roles, writing code or designing Web sites or hunting down data for research reports, where they're neither as visible nor as well-paid as the larger-than-life deal-makers and traders who dominate the cartoons (a.k.a. news stories and congressional speeches). Or, maybe not. Does it matter?
Here's an idea: If your motivation to work in finance isn't solely financial, speak up. Let The Wall Street Journal (and the New York Times, CNBC, and even Andrew Cuomo) know what you think and feel about your career. Anonymously or not, write a letter, post to a blog, talk to your friends and relatives. Especially those who attend or teach college or work in human services or in politics, where the anti-Wall Street bullhorn may be cranked up the loudest.
If you love what you do, and you did nothing wrong, then go out and assert your career identity with pride. You have nothing to be ashamed of.