Wall Street job market may have hit post-crisis peak

Pro: Jobs report 'tale of two economies'
Pro: Jobs report 'tale of two economies'

Wall Street firms have hit peak employment, and are now left with little option but to cut headcount.

That's the story for most big banks in 2016, which have had to reduce staffing levels, cut compensation, or both, in response to international headwinds and central banks' lower-for-longer interest rate mentality.

"A number of these institutions are looking to pull the lever of cost, and that relates to headcount," said Bhushan Sethi, a partner at PwC and head of its financial services people and organization practice.

For years following the financial crisis, Wall Street whittled down headcount, slashing more than 20,000 jobs, according to data maintained by the Office of the State Comptroller of New York. Wall Street is widely seen as a proxy for the broader financial services industry.

For most of the last three years, the banking industry in New York experienced a bit of an employment renaissance, but even the 2015 post-crisis employment high (172,400 jobs) represents an 8 percent slide compared with the precrisis era.

I'm having to advise individuals that their brokering days may be over. No one ever wants to hear it.
David McCormack
CEO, DMC partners

Now, bankers and recruiters say even that is about to end. At a time when the U.S. is setting new records for the number of hedge funds, many pensions are cutting bait and giving up on the number of managers they invest with. That means that funds are suffering outflows as they cut fees to keep investors.

A disproportionately large portion of the banking industry is based in New York, lining up the city for a potential one-two punch of job cuts.

Recruiters see which jobs banks are keeping, and which are being automated away. It leads to some difficult conversations.

"I'm having to advise individuals that their brokering days may be over," said David McCormack, CEO of recruitment firm DMC Partners. "No one ever wants to hear it."

Automation is putting increasing pressure on wealth management roles and other high-paying Wall Street jobs, presenting an option for banks looking to streamline staff. Elsewhere in the industry, banks are hiring for tech roles in app development and regulatory and compliance jobs.

"Technology has taken over a lot of execution functions on the trading side," said Michael Karp, CEO of recruitment firm Options Group. "But more consolidation needs to happen."

Sometimes, workers who cycle out of Wall Street don't seek full-time employment.

"We are inundated with unsolicited reach-outs from candidates every day," said Kristen Koh Goldstein, founder and CEO of HireAthena, an online service that recruits part-time employees and working moms for back-office and human resources work. Koh said the volume of staffing candidates has picked up lately.

So far this year, banks including Citigroup, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs have cut staff as they fight to maintain profit levels.Big banks, including Goldman, have reshuffled their teams and moved some roles to cheaper ZIP codes, such as Salt Lake City. But, as one banker who spoke with CNBC pointed out, the U.K.'s Brexit vote and the potential it has to disrupt finance operations in London may help preserve New York jobs, at least in the short run.

Other recruiters note that there are some jobs on Wall Street that are likely to never go away.

"For M&A bankers, there will always be a boutique if you can advise and execute with clients," McCormack said.