Is Wall Street’s Youngest Talent Doomed?

Illustration by Diego Cadena Bejarano

Illustration by Diego Cadena Bejarano

A generation of overachievers faces the perils of starting out in a crash.

In the summer of 2008, Ryan Kirlin’s career seemed full of promise.

He was interning at the New York Stock Exchange and had fall job interviews lined up at Citigroup and Barclays. He liked the stock exchange, but figured it would be smart to interview at all three places before making any decisions. After all, Kirlin had options.

“Nobody thought anything real of it,” Kirlin said of the market’s choppiness that summer. “Then it started to get really bad really fast.”

Barclays and Citi canceled Kirlin’s interviews. That left him with one option: the New York Stock Exchange. Kirlin and about 50 other would-be financiers crowded into a conference room for the interviews, competing for ten spots at the organization.

One rival applicant, Kirlin remembers, was set to graduate from New York University — a top finance feeder school. He had turned down a full-time offer at JPMorgan Chase during the summer because he wasn’t quite sold on investment banking.


“Interviews are already high-pressure, and this was next-level,” Kirlin says. He was finishing up at Fordham University, which is not necessarily a so-called “target school” for finance recruiting. Kirlin was worried.

In the end, he got one of the NYSE jobs. That rival did not. Therein lies the “next level” pressure for today’s entrants into the job market. A degree and strong internships on your résumé are not enough to secure a job in the field. Things that one cannot control — like a great financial crisis or a pandemic — will, every decade or so, derail an unlucky generation.

Thousands of fresh and upcoming graduates feel the fear. For aspiring financiers the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing upheaval in financial and labor markets have already torpedoed career plans. Internships have gone virtual. Some firms have instituted hiring freezes, while others dwell in wait-and-see mode.

The last crisis provides a grave guide for how rough things can get. Between August 2007 and mid-February 2009, the financial services sector fired at least 325,000 people, according to an analysis by the International Labor Organization. Citigroup alone laid off 75,000 people in that time period.

According to Kirlin, when he returned to the NYSE after graduating in 2009, 40 percent of the department he’d interned with had been axed. Some of his college friends took alternative routes when they graduated: One joined the navy, another went to graduate school, and two others started working in internet advertising, a burgeoning field at that point.

Amanda Holden, who now works as a personal finance educator, joined wealth manager Fisher Investments in 2008. She had graduated in 2007 from UCLA with degrees in communications and economics and wasn’t sure what to do next. “It was very much a starter role,” Holden says. “It was kind of like glamorized paperwork. It was never meant to be a job you stay in for multiple years.”

Holden was working in an associate role at the firm, along with 60 or 70 others, for about six months before the “shit hit the fan.” Lehman Brothers collapsed, then Bear Stearns. Soon after, Fisher Investments began laying off staff.

“The day they laid everyone off definitely goes down as one of the weirdest, craziest days of my life,” Holden says. Fisher Investments cut nearly every associate that day — but spared Holden and a handful others. Because it was hard to find work elsewhere, she felt locked into her role. “A lot of the kids that got laid off ended up going back to school, which is never a good reason to take out loans.”

Financial consultant and columnist Sloane Ortel recalls a similar feeling. She had an unusual start in finance, working at Oppenheimer before heading off to college in 2008. During her sophomore year she secured a job with the CFA Institute, where she worked for nearly nine years.

“I was much more attached to that job,” Ortel says. “I felt like there wasn’t another one coming if I left, which was a function of the recession.”

As other job prospects evaporated, salaries began to stagnate. “We were underpaid; we were overworked,” Holden says. “It was a tough time to be in investment management.” Ortel noticed that members of her social circle who’d graduated a few years after her were earning as new hires what she’d been making in year three or four of her career. In the short term, graduating into a recession “definitely” affects earnings, Kirlin agrees.

Research bears this out.

“Graduating in a recession leads to large initial earnings losses that do fade, but slowly and over an eight- to ten-year period after graduation,” according to researchers Philip Oreopoulos, Till von Wachter, and Andrew Heisz, who published a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research on the subject in 2006.

Indeed, many of Kirlin’s friends who were unable to get jobs immediately after graduating have now caught up to him in terms of salary. But that’s little solace for youngsters facing unemployment.

This March, interns were terrified.

“Summer internships are just crushed across the board,” says Troy Prince, founder of Wall Street Bound, a nonprofit dedicated to helping black and brown students get jobs in finance. His organization aims to answer the question, “How do we get fewer black and brown kids delivering DoorDash and more on Wall Street?” As Prince points out, internships are an important step toward landing a full-time job. But for the students he works with, many of them have been canceled.

“Wall Street is obsessed with summer internships as the focal point or the entrée,” Prince notes. “If you’re applying for these jobs from, good luck. The data bear out that 75 percent of jobs are taken by those within the internal network.”

Some companies, like Citigroup, have extended full-time offers to the interns who had to go digital. But for the rest of the talent crop, the online application process is extremely competitive.

On June 15, Goldman Sachs posted several openings for its “early careers” recruiting program, which aims to hire people with three to six months of work experience, on LinkedIn. Each role has had hundreds of applicants, LinkedIn shows. The New York City–based investing openings have had 5,000.

Even the smaller firms are experiencing an influx of applicants. Brad Alford, founder of search consulting firm Alpha Capital Management, says he posted an entry-level job listing on LinkedIn for someone with zero to three years of experience in the field. In four days the Atlanta-based firm received 900 applications.

“It’s a great time to hire in the investment field,” Alford says, adding that the firm normally would have gotten about 100 responses. Alpha Capital’s leaders settled on one of the first 50 applicants without meeting her in person. They interviewed her over Zoom and hired her soon after.

For the remaining 899 candidates, experts have a few tips.

Prince suggests taking certification exams like the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s securities industry essentials exam, which costs $75 and doesn’t require a firm’s sponsorship. According to Prince, adding the word “Finra” to their résumés has given an immediate boost to the students he works with.

“I’ve had multiple conversations with young people who have taken this advice and are now getting calls back,” Prince says. “It’s a no-brainer.” The CFA Institute also offers a free program called the CFA Foundation Certificate, another easy addition to a résumé. “Employers will all understand and respect a student for taking the initiative to educate themselves right now,” Prince says.

Holden recommends being open to any career where “you learn and can get paid.” She suggests absorbing as much as possible at the first job and using that knowledge to plan for long-term growth.

“Your starter job is never perfect,” she adds. “All you have to do is take care of yourself in this moment and commit to learning in the long term.”

Kirlin’s friends who landed at internet advertising agencies have since grown their careers — and earning power — significantly, despite not entering a traditional field. “You have to go into an industry where there’s growth,” Kirlin says. “You can be a rock star in a shrinking industry, and you’re really going to struggle because your whole world is constantly sinking. If you go work in a growing industry, you can be totally mediocre.”

Ortel recommends tapping into online networks to make connections.

“When I was entering the workforce, fintwit” — finance Twitter — “was not something chief investment officers were hanging out on,” she says. That has changed. A good friend of Ortel’s was able to land a “fantastic” investing job through Twitter connections.

“The sort of grab-and-grin networking venue is not available now, but you’re just as able to make thirsty posts on LinkedIn,” Ortel notes. “Those venues are still just as available to everyone as they were before.”

And for those who get lucky, elder millennials suggest exercising tact.

Kirlin, for example, was an anomaly in getting an offer; his four roommates didn’t have jobs lined up when they graduated. “That was very normal,” Kirlin says. “It just set a really weird tone because even if you had a job, you couldn’t be happy about it because everyone else was really bummed.”