Having grown up as part of the ‘me’ generation, we have been told that we can have it all. The world is our oyster and, if we work hard and pass exams, it is ours for the taking. However, there comes a point when even the most buoyant confidence can become dented and, as the broadsheets seem intent on telling us, our generation faces increasingly arduous prospects of securing post-graduate employment.
“I definitely worry a lot about if I’ll be able to get a job,” said one History student. “I know want I want to do, but I’m always being told that getting the job I want will be nearly impossible and I’ll have to work for a pittance for ages before getting anywhere. To be quite honest, I barely know anyone who got a good job immediately after graduation. It just doesn’t seem likely anymore – I don’t think anyone really expects it.”
However, this should not be entirely unexpected. As the children of an era of exams, tests and multiple hoops to jump through, the employment hurdle seems just another challenge to overcome. Potentially problematic, but by no means impossible.
Indeed, Muzaffar Khan, the co-author of Racing Towards Excellence, a book which aims to help students achieve their ambitions. He thinks that as long as students have the right mindset and the determination, anything is possible.
“Once you find the right way of going about things, it’s easy. So many people do the wrong things. For example, prospective employees often expect the employer to like them for who they are rather than having the skill sets or the personality traits that the employer would find attractive. But once you find the right way of going about things, you are much more likely to be successful.”
Khan has an impressive CV, with an extensive background working in hedge funds and investment banks. He started his career in private banking at Citibank, before becoming a mergers and acquisition specialist. He then worked as a foreign exchange trader at Barclays Capital, before becoming a strategist for Moore Capital, one of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world. After five years, he retired to become Vice Chairman of ACOPS, an international development charity.
He is currently the director of Space Energy AG, a company that seeks to develop space-based solar energy. At its last sold price, the company was valued at half a million dollars. He holds degrees from the London School of Economics and Kings College London.
Clearly, by any benchmark, Khan’s advice would be pertinent for any student wishing to take tips on how to be successful. But throughout his career, he has also become a mentor for many individual students, providing them with advice, help and the benefit of years of experience in the student’s chosen field. And this knowledge, he emphasises, can be key to achieving one’s aims. “I have mentored individuals, ranging from 14 year olds to university students and even people in their 50s, and in every case, input from a good mentor increases the trajectory of one’s performance, whether it’s an academic career or a financial sense. It’s really about not having to repeat the mistakes of others and being able to learn from their experiences. A good mentor in this sense is exactly the same as a sports coach; they refine the way you do things so that you end up being more efficient, productive and successful in gaining your objectives, or working towards them.” Having been a personal mentor to hundreds of students over a period of about 17 years, he states that none of them have ever had difficulty finding a job.
It seems that advice given by a professional in your chosen field can be of great benefit. But is it realistic for the average student to expect that a high flying expert will take a great interest in their progress and subsequent career? It could be pretty intimidating to ask for help from someone at the peak of their career. But Khan thinks that students should seek out help more often than is currently the case, and that students shouldn’t necessarily assume they will be refused. “The mentoring process is very well established in business, education and the Army, for example. When you start at many firms, you’re given some kind of mentor – there’s always another professional who you can ask for advice. This is the case at Goldman Sachs, for example.”
So should more students take advantage of this? If the process is already the norm, it mightn’t be a stretch to extend the advice network to those who aim to enter the field. “Students need to inspire the individual to want to help them. The key to having a good mentor is finding an individual who you feel positive around. You get a sense that they really understand, and they have a specific skill set that will help you to gain your objectives. They should support and nurture you in a positive fashion.”
However, even if you follow the advice of others, it is not enough to assume that you will simply be able to amble into a career path post-graduation. Khan emphasises that students should decide what they wish to do early, as subsequent action will be made much easier and much more productive. “It certainly is more difficult the later you leave the journey,” he states.
If people are determined and are willing to make the necessary changes in work practices, then pretty much anything within most jobs is possible
“The interesting thing is that life is easier the earlier you get your act together. There’s something amazing about starting early, as it creates a cumulative impact which is very positive. If you leave it later – and by later I mean two or three years after university, let’s say – things become harder.” This is worrying for the quarter of recent graduates who have decided to postpone the start of their careers altogether, according to a YouGov survey in March for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of my conversation with Khan was his condemnation of university careers services. I was expecting a criticism of students for being lazy: far more likely to procrastinate over an assessed essay until the night before than to harass the careers service for information. However, Khan absolved students of blame and instead focused on the services provided by universities themselves. “Universities sell themselves as passports to good jobs – you go to a good university and an employer is meant to find you attractive as an employee. And yet most universities seem to be really laid back about helping students with career advice.
“I don’t think it’s about student laziness. It’s much more that nobody helps them become aware of how important it is to start working hard first. After all, by getting into university shows that you are relatively hard working – you’ve had to do GCSEs and A Levels and shown some level of discipline throughout your life to get to this point. The apathy towards career planning arises, for most people, not from laziness, but because nobody tells them it’s important to start planning early.”
He asks me if I know my careers advisor. I admit that, although having been to a few scheduled talks, I wouldn’t know who he or she was were they to walk past.
“That’s a remarkable shortfall, as universities really should be the facilitators of careers for their students. The key for students is to collectively use the union and other avenues to force the career departments to upgrade the services that they provide to students. I think that what’s more important than worrying about what decision you’ve made as to which university you’ve gone to is the advice you’re given when you get there.” Perhaps all is not lost for the numerous Oxbridge rejects at York after all.
When asked if he always wanted to go into banking, Khan admits, “No, in my case it happened because all my friends were going into it. I thought, ‘that sounds great, I’ll do that.’ My real passion in life has been helping others to succeed. I think that we live in a world where there is too much of a disconnect between the rich and the poor, and that increasing social mobility should be the primary objective of society – only then can we have a cohesive, mutually respective society. I want to help the next generation of successful bankers realise that they are part of a symbiotic world where they need to look after others as well.”
With the perception of bankers as people who earn masses amounts of money (despite the public vitriol this has attracted in recent months) and the financial sector as a glamorous and attractive world, I ask if he thinks students can often be unrealistic in having ambitions of such a demanding and competitive career.
“No, I think it can be a realistic ambition for anyone. The issue is never that your ambitions are unrealistic – the issue is the gap between your ambitions and your determination to do what it takes to achieve those ambitions.” He cites examples of a recent mentee who failed one of her years at university, but who now works for Morgan Stanley, and an acquaintance who attended Anglia Ruskin University, but who defied the odds and got a job at Amira.
However, it is important to be aware of what you may have to sacrifice if you are determined to have a successful career in this kind of field. Working for 14 hours a day for five days a week, and then sometimes on Sundays too, is the norm for bankers, according to Khan. This is another benefit of the mentoring process: discovering how hard your desired career path may turn out to be, and deciding if it is the right step for you to take – a decision much better to take whilst still at university than after graduation. “I encourage people to find mentors so that they get a realistic picture of what life is like in these places and the sacrifices that will be required in their personal lives in order to succeed.”
But only two things are required to be successful in your chosen path: determination and an ability to change. “Talent is something that can be created – and I have done so. What is remarkable about most people is how rigid they tend to be. They create a world view and will not deviate from it, but if people are determined and are willing to make the necessary changes in their personality and in their work practices, then pretty much anything within most jobs is possible.”
The overwhelming impression and advice that Khan gives is that students must be determined in order to be successful. His book makes the distinction between being happy and being successful, and how these two concepts can sometimes be mutually exclusive, particularly for new graduates. The aim is to balance the two, and although tricky, this is not impossible.
It may not be the best time to be a graduate seeking employment, but if certain guidelines and advice are followed, perhaps the situation is not as terrible as is often made out. It would be a mistake to assume that jobs are plentiful and easy to get, but with the right mentality and armed with the right tools, perhaps a degree of optimism would not be misplaced.
Racing Towards Excellence is available from booksellers at a price of £9.99.
Muzaffar Khan will be giving a lecture for the Club of PEP, entitled “How to Get a Top Job in the City”, on May 12 in ATB 056/057.