Bank recruiters lament shrinking intern pool and lack of control over working hours

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As much as investment banks’ graduate recruitment teams like to believe that they have a hold over the summer programme, how long the interns work is entirely down to the desk they’re sent to, and any underlying health issues could be lost amid banks’ clunking bureaucracy.

How, exactly, Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt died is still being investigated, but the current theory is he had an epileptic fit after working until 6am three days in a row. Banks’ HR teams deal with the administration of the recruitment and offer process – including asking interns to sign away their right to the EU Working Time Directive – and will also ask the new recruits to make them aware of any underlying health conditions.

“These forms will be sent to the banks’ occupational health divisions, who will ask the in-house doctors to assess the risks if they think there’s a health issue that needs investigating. However, whether this is communicated to HR, or then the team managing the intern is a different matter,” said one investment banking graduate recruiter. “Then, there’s the question of whether everyone on the desk knows about it, or just one person managing them. It’s definitely not a perfect system – I’ve managed analyst pools where I haven’t been informed of someone’s pre-existing conditions before it started to go wrong.”

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HR teams will manage the first part of the internships – the induction and classroom-based training in financial product knowledge – as well as providing feedback, and setting the ever-important internship projects. However, when it comes to the day-to-day tasks, working hours are very much down to the desk you work on.

“There’s a somewhat prehistoric culture among senior investment bankers that because they had to work through the night, their interns should have to too,” said another investment banking graduate recruiter. “For the interns, it’s a rite of passage, a chance to get a back-slap from an MD and prove they have the right stuff to make it in investment banking.”

When you’re 21, this might seem like a novelty, but the long-term health problems created by investment banking working practices can be costly. Insomnia, alcoholism and heart palpitations and are common, according to a 2012 study by the University of Southern California. As well as, for male bankers, the prospect of erectile dysfunction, moobs and a series of embarrassing tics. And then there’s the whole range of anxiety and personality disorders common to the sector.

There’s another factor at play – the dwindling intern pools in London’s investment banks. Taking a snapshot of figures provided to us by five major investment banks, there were 1,050 places on offer in London to summer interns in 2012, compared to 1,500 in the peak of 2007. Citi offered 150 places in 2012, compared to 250 in the boom years, while 500 places were offered across EMEA (excluding Switzerland) at UBS in 2007, against 300 last year, and Barclays had 50 fewer places available in 2012 than in the pre-crisis period.

“The only realistic way of reducing interns working hours is to hire twice as many, and if we do that we’ll have to pay them less. If we reduce the pay, then the sort of graduates we want to attract will gravitate to engineering, law or industry,” said another investment banking graduate recruiter.

There has to be an unwritten rule among interns and senior bankers that they’re going to keep working hours within reasonable boundaries, rather than engaging in the current game of one-upmanship. This is difficult in the cut-throat world of internships, which are based on relationships and perceptions of being a hard-worker, believes another grad recruiter.

“It’s a culture of face time, and interns won’t leave the office until they can be sure that another intern isn’t going to be there to impress their manager – it’s not something we can manage,” he said. “I’ve watched interns and how they manage their workloads, and in most instances they could leave earlier. Ultimately, it’s about being seen at the right time by the right people.”

Bank of America said that it was conducting an investigation into the working conditions of junior staff following Erhardt's death. A spokesperson said: "We have also convened a formal senior working group to consider the facts as they become known, to review all aspects of this tragedy, to  listen to employees at all levels and to help us learn from them."

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