A New Allentown on Wall Street

“Well we’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found.” Billy Joel

If you are over the age of 40 and/or a Billy Joel fan, you will probably be familiar with the song, Allentown. The song laments the worsening fortunes of workers in Allentown, Pennsylvania after the town’s main employer, Bethlehem Steel, hit upon hard times. This formerly iconic symbol of American corporate success ultimately met its demise after struggling against free trade policies and its own failure to innovate. More broadly, though, the song served as an anthem for disillusioned blue-collar workers everywhere who worked for companies that failed to adapt quickly enough to the rapidly globalizing economy of the 1980s.

Lately, we’ve seen a number of articles like this one pointing to the impact that artificial intelligence, distributed computing, Big Data and other technologies will continue to have on the Financial Services sector. The common thread is this: nothing is likely to stop the movement away from people to information technology. If financial and/or economic conditions improve, firms will embrace IT at the expense of human capital. If they worsen, firms will embrace IT at the expense of human capital. We call this Fintechization.

We think many of today's front, back and middle office Financial Services workers can be thought of as modern day Allentowners. Sure, the typical investment banker is an educated, high-wage earner who doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck. But increasingly, Financial Services employees know in their gut that their jobs are threatened by products that can be acquired via a subscription at a fraction of the cost of their base salary, let alone bonus.

At some point, we believe major financial institutions will stop serving as gigantic piñatas for Silicon Valley to bust open. But even when more firms wholeheartedly embrace Fintech like Goldman Sachs has done (the Wall Street leader in this area), the employment picture for the traditionally skilled will continue to get bleaker.

The good news is that unlike steel workers from the 1980s, who could not simply pick-up and move to a low cost producer overseas, today’s Allentowners have a choice. They can hope their firms will spare them or find a new bull market that requires their participation. Alternatively, they can reinvent themselves as Fintech practitioners.

Many promising Fintech companies are loaded with high-caliber tech talent, but are light in the sneakers when it comes to having experienced industry personnel who have lived through full economic and market cycles. That’s where some seasoned veterans may have an opportunity, especially those who can fuse their knowledge with an understanding of the core innovations transforming Finance.

If you are ready to reinvent, map out a plan ASAP. Take classes, ask your tech-savvy niece or nephew to give you a teach-in on coding and read Fintech blogs to get comfortable with the vernacular. Also, if you can, make a modest investment or two in a Fintech start-up, which, in addition to upside, may enable you to “purchase” an education and some access. It still may be tough to land a senior role straightaway at the latest Finaccorn. Nevertheless, you will be charting a new course where the wind will be at your back.

We have seen a few examples of people who have reinvented themselves as Fintech killers. Perhaps this can be you, but stop waiting for Pennsylvania and embrace the future while there is still time.

 

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