Tracking Finance Jobs in a Bear Market

Editor’s note: This article was originally available to attendees of Ladders’ finance-industry career event held in New York on Feb. 9, 2009.

Dollar_Search One thousand applicants for one position. Ron Dadina couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The job wasn’t an open call for an entry-level position; it was a senior finance position at The World Bank in New York. But Dadina was hitting the market for a job in finance at a terrible time.

He was laid off in June from Bear Stearns, where he was the managing director of the company’s International Debt Capital Markets Group. By the end of summer, thousands of finance executives had joined him in the ranks of the unemployed and applying for jobs like the one at the World Bank.

The World Bank called in Dadina and 12 others to interview for the open position. He didn’t get the job. “For any job these days,” Dadina told Ladders, “there are not just a few dozen but hundreds of people applying.” Unemployment in the finance industry soared 75 percent in 2008, rising to 540,000 or 5.6 percent in December 2008 (the most recent figures available), up from 315,000 or 3.2 percent in December 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since December 2007, finance lost 19,800 jobs in New York alone (mostly in securities, commodity contracts and investment banks), according to New York state’s Department of Labor.

So Dadina and many like him find themselves at the top of their field but out of work and vying for scarce jobs in what appears to be a shriveled employment market. But Dadina found work as a managing director and senior credit officer in microfinance, a new branch of the industry that he considers more resilient than the larger market.. (See his story.) And he’s not alone. Interviews with finance-industry workers, recruiters and hiring managers conducted by Ladders since September and a review of employment statistics from Ladders and external sources show a constricted spring of jobs but pools of hiring at companies in specific fields, functions and specialties.

“There is definitely hiring going on,” said Clark Christensen, chief financial officer of PS Energy Group Inc. in Atlanta. “There is a lot of churn; people are landing [in new jobs] all the time. I don’t think it will expand, but it’s going on.” The hiring “wish list”

Even in financial services, some specialties offer richer hunting than others, said Harold Laslo, a staffing specialist at Aldan Troy Group, a recruitment firm in New York that focuses on finance. Auditing, security, debt remediation and other crisis-focused jobs have been on the increase since summer, recruiters say. Jobs for IT-related roles in financial services are also proliferating, as is anything that involves generating revenue, Laslo said. “Companies have made up their wish lists in this market.”

While the mortgage industry felt post-apocalyptic last year, recruiters expect anyone with experience structuring mortgages and mortgage-backed investments to be a hot commodity as firms attempt to untangle the mess of the housing collapse. Any skill set related to the puzzle of how to revalue complex assets based on consolidation of sub-prime mortgages and other risky but popular investment vehicles is a valuable line on your resume, recruiters told Ladders.

“Obviously a lot of people are having difficulty with mortgages, so banks need to analyze a customer’s economic situation and figure out what modifications have to be made to keep those loans as viable as possible,” said Mark Viego, vice president of the Management Resources division of Menlo Park, Calif.-based recruiting giant Robert Half International. “It’s there and in health care that we’re seeing the employment picture get better.”

Specifically, RHI has seen increased demand for loan processors, loan underwriters, customer service representatives, credit and collections specialists, and mortgage-operations specialists. “Pretty much anyone connected with loan modifications or loan refinancing, we’re seeing increased demand for from financial institutions,” Viego said.

The bottom line

What businesses need more than anything else right now is to make money, said Laslo of Aldan Troy.

“Sales roles, IT roles — anyone who can be a revenue producer, particularly if they have a book of business to bring from a company that went out of business — anyone who can create revenue and be up and running when they land is a good candidate.”

“Companies are very bottom-line focused right now,” Viego said. “So the advice I would give is to highlight (on your resume or elsewhere) everything you’ve done that had any kind of bottom-line impact, whether that means increasing revenue or cutting costs.”

That includes technology leaders who save money in unexpected places and auditors who can go through a large company’s purchase orders and identify purchases in which the buyer didn’t get full advantage from bulk discounts, tiered pricing or other potential cost cutters, Viego said. And “anyone with tax expertise who can find rebates, or any kind of tax advantage a company can take, are also in demand,” he said.

Layoffs at financial-services companies were so drastic that many may need to hire some of those executives back. Some may hire consultants or staff who specialize in debt-remediation and business turnarounds, as is often the case near the bottom of an economic downturn, according to Sherry Brickman, a partner at recruiting firm Martin Partners in Chicago.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

The market is the worst it’s ever been for senior-level financial-services executives, and many don’t want to add to the misery. Several FinanceLadder members reached by Ladders declined to be interviewed on the record, largely to avoid adding more negative news to a market they see as being held back by fear and negativity. “I just don’t see any value in adding to it,” said a corporate attorney with a specialty in mergers and acquisitions, who was laid off after his firm lost several large customers to bankruptcy and cutbacks.

Recruiters agree, and many claim the perception of misery, aside from spreading bad news, has artificially repressed the employment market in finance.

“The problem is that even companies that are doing well are so inundated with negative news about layoffs and the economic situation that it’s causing them to pause. ‘If nobody else is hiring, what’s wrong with this picture that we have this need?’ ” Laslo said. “So they hesitate even when there’s no good reason to.”

Other companies, aware that hiring has become a buyer’s market, are being so unrealistically picky about both the job descriptions they post and the candidates they interview that even routing hires takes far longer than they should, he said. “And it puts more pressure on people internally at a firm that has a genuine need [for new hires],” he said. “They have all the work distributed onto them while the company takes an extraordinary amount of time looking for the perfect candidate; and the perfect candidate doesn’t exist.”

And the slow pace feeds the cycle of perception, he said, as the lag reduces the number of people hired and contributes to the impression that there is no hiring to be had.

“The biggest problem is that people are nervous,” said Christensen of PS Energy in Atlanta. “All the bricks that can drop in the ocean, the really bad news, have already dropped, so it’s just a question of how big the ripples are. “People are nervous. As soon as something happens to make them a little more comfortable about the economy, that will lead us out of this.”

Hitting bottom

The Ayers Group/Career Partners International is a recruiting company that specializes in career transitions and outplacement. Based on its outplacement bookings, Sally Haver, Ayers Group senior vice president of business development, in December predicted there would continue to be major waves of layoffs into January and February of this year. Beyond that, she predicted, retraction might continue, but at a much slower pace, paving the way for an economically flat spring or summer and recovery later in the year.

If we have hit bottom, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more bad news, but layoffs at financial-services companies were so drastic in 2008 that many firms now need to fill some of those elminated positions, said Sherry Brickman, a partner at recruiting firm Martin Partners in Chicago. As commonly happens at the end of a downturn, many may hire consultants or staff who specialize in debt-remediation and business turnarounds, she said.

It won’t take much to turn around the economy, especially the financial services market, Laslo said. A little good news might do it, or a little warm weather, or maybe successful government action.

“I think we have hit bottom,” Laslo said. “Am I an economist or have any hardcore evidence to back that up? No. Have I seen a slight uptick in new business in the new year? Yes.”

(Karl Rozemeyer contributed to this article.)