Eliane Palivoda Herren

Good morning, Eliane, and welcome to Commodity Conversations. First, what is your title and role at the University of Geneva?

I am the Executive Director of the Master of Science, Executive Diploma and Executive Certificate in Commodity Trading at the University of Geneva.

I am responsible for the whole program regarding faculty members, courses, contents, exams, etc. I’m on the student selection committee and organise the program advisory boards. I’m also the contact person for SUISSENEGOCE. I have two people working with me.

Please tell me a little bit about the MSc course.

UNIGE created the Master of Science in Commodity Trading in 2008 following a request from the commodity trading industry in Geneva. The city is a trading hub, and, at that time, the trading companies here had to import talent, particularly from London.

The commodity trading companies approached GTSA, the Geneva Trading and Shipping Association – now SUISSENEGOCE – about the idea. The association worked with the University to set up the programme.  SUISSENEGOCE has been involved from the beginning. Thanks to them and the commodity trading industry in Geneva, we are now in our 16th intake. We have more than 1,000 course alumni.

The course is constantly evolving to adapt to the changing market conditions. It is not the same course now as in 2008!

I understand you’ve 33 students coming from 15 different countries this year.

Yes, that is correct. Of those, 27 per cent are Swiss, 55 per cent other European, and 18 per cent non-Europeans. I am proud that the program is recognised locally and internationally.

What’s the average age of this year’s intake – and what type of work experience do they bring to the course?

The average age is 25 years. The programme is for young people with a bachelor’s degree.

We are open regarding bachelor’s degrees. We have students who’ve studied finance, management, accounting, law, international relations, and all the scientific backgrounds such as mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc. This year, we have someone from a naval academy. We quite often have people with a shipping degree, often from Greece.

How does the selection process work?

It’s a two-step process. A committee initially selects the best candidates based on their academic results. Those candidates then go through a second phase where they apply to companies linked to the commodity trading industry, such as commodity trading, shipping, inspection, audit companies or banks for a traineeship.

Do other universities offer similar courses?

The CASS – now Bayes – Business School in London and Erasmus University in Rotterdam offer similar courses, but they are not linked to traineeships. Some US universities, such as Houston, have commodity programmes. But as far as I know, our programme is the only one where students simultaneously work for a company and study for the course. From Monday to Thursday, they work in their companies; on Friday and Saturday, they’re in class.

Is it challenging to find a traineeship in a company?

It’s not easy, but we help. This year, we have 33 students, which means 33 traineeships.

Together with SUISSENEGOCE, we have set up a platform whereby students upload their motivation letter, CV, and a short video presentation of themselves. Once all the candidates have uploaded their profiles, the companies access the platform and contact the students that interest them.

We also do online speed recruiting.

This year, we had a record 170 applications, of which we initially selected 100 candidates. We had  18 companies attending the Speed Recruiting event. Each candidate had nine minutes to convince a company to give them a second interview. Candidates also have to search actively for a traineeship.

The companies love it because they see a maximum of people in two afternoons. For students, it’s an excellent opportunity to meet a company, be ready, and try to convince the company to give them a second interview. We offer all the candidates a two-hour coaching session to help them prepare.

So, out of the 100 students you selected for the course this year, only 33 were offered a traineeship by a company.

The companies invest time and money in their trainees. It’s an investment, but most stay within the company, so it’s worth it. I know people from the first three or four intakes still with the same company. Companies hire again year after year. Some companies have graduate programmes but still take trainees from our programme.

What’s the limiting factor here? Why do you only have 33 students? Is it because you don’t have enough companies willing to participate, or you don’t have enough space in the University to have more than 33 students?

Thirty-three students is a considerable number. We usually like to have around 25-30, not much more. Forty would be too big.

The ratio between applicants and people in the class is about 20 per cent, approximately the same as in other masters.

Do the companies pay the students? Geneva is an expensive place to live.

Yes, they do.

Do all the graduates end up in commodity trading and shipping?

We want our students to have an overview and transferable skills they can use in many different areas and businesses.

Commodity and shipping are a broad space incorporating many professions: audit, trade finance, legal, inspection, shipping, risk, and compliance – middle, back and front office. The sustainability aspect is essential. Energy is not just oil and gas. It is electricity, whether wind, solar, or hydro.

We are teaching all the aspects of the business.

Who teaches the classes – people from the companies themselves or full-time professors?

We have professors and PhDs from the University of Geneva or other Universities, and we have a few professionals. We have experts who are professionals coming from the commodity industry. They come for an hour or so to explain to the students how their learning is applied within the company or the business.

It’s a one-year course, isn’t it?

It’s a one-year course. It was initially 18 months, then it became two years, but we have shortened it to two semesters of courses. The traineeship runs over a year, and it’s up to the company to decide whether to employ the student when he finishes his courses or wait while he writes his thesis, usually in the third semester.

The course is a 90-credit program under the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.

How does a student apply for the course?

Through the university website. Admissions are open from 15th January to 28th February.

How would a potential student know whether this course is right for them? In your experience, what sort of students succeed with these courses?

Our program tends to attract students interested in a master’s degree with an academic and a practical side, students interested in what’s happening in the world and how geopolitics or the weather affects commodities. It also attracts students interested in the environment.

Is there a dropout rate?

No, because I think we are detailed and transparent about the program.

It is an intense program because you need to be 100 per cent at the office when you’re at the office and 100 per cent at the University when you are at the University. It’s every weekend for a year. Students know that presence is mandatory. There’s no recording. There are no online courses; students need to be present. All this is clearly explained, so nobody is surprised. We never had someone who said, this is not what I expected. I’m dropping out. We never had that.

And as I said, it is a two-stage process. When the companies interview potential trainees, they are also looking for specific skills, more and more soft skills.

Women make up 42 per cent of the class this year. Do you know what the percentage was in 2008 when you first started?

I have it in front of me – in 2008, 31 per cent of our students were women. However, we have had years – 2015 and 2020 – when the percentage dropped to 5 per cent.

Commodities and shipping remain a male environment, but you would have a similar situation in other sectors, sometimes the other way around. If you go to psychology, 80 per cent of the students are women, and 20 per cent are men.

What would you say to a young woman to encourage her to take this course?

I never had a woman come to me and question whether the program is for her because she is a woman. I never had that question. The sector offers so many opportunities, whether you’re a man or woman, I don’t think there is any constraint.

Trading companies want to hire women. They need women. They want gender balance.

The program covers ags, metals and energies, but does it focus on one in particular?

Energy is slightly denser because of all the renewables, but metal and ags are the same.

Thank you, Eliane, for your time and input.

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