Banks Strive To Adapt in Tough Market for Job Candidates

By Paul Gores

Like many Wisconsin businesses, banks are having difficulty finding qualified workers — especially front-line employees like tellers — as the pandemic lingers and other companies offer similar or higher hourly wages.

The shortage of potential employees has left banks focusing on other ways, such as flexible work time and a more-personal culture, to attract and keep employees.

“Yes, it has been a struggle to find good, qualified candidates for open positions,” said Sandy Soda, senior vice president for human resources at Berlin-based Fortifi Bank. “The number of resumes we receive for positions has declined in recent years, and more drastically since the pandemic started.”

A search of the state-run Jobs Center of Wisconsin last week (Friday, September 16) showed more than 500 job listings in the past 30 days for the keyword “bank,” a lot of them for tellers and consumer service representative positions. Banks that included information about the starting wage generally put it between $12 and $18 per hour, although many listings said pay would be based on experience.

The unemployment rate in Wisconsin remained steady at 3.9% in August, while the state’s labor force increased by 5,500 people from July, and was up 59,000 from August 2020, according to the Department of Workforce Development.

Some think with this month’s end of the federal government’s $300-a-week pandemic unemployment payment, which began as $600 weekly in March of 2020 as COVID-19 arrived but later was cut in half, might bring more people back into the workforce.

But surveys have shown that since the pandemic began, people’s attitudes about work have changed, and it might take more than an acceptable hourly wage to draw them. Some have become comfortable working from home, for example, and don’t want to go into work every day. And more are thinking about career changes altogether rather than returning to jobs they’ve done in the past.

Almost 1 in 3 U.S. workers under 40 have thought about changing their occupation or field of work since the pandemic began, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll, which was conducted July 6 to 21. About 1 in 5 workers overall have considered a professional shift, a signal that the pandemic has been a turning point for many, the Post reported.

Banks, like other employers, are having to adapt to the needs of potential hires.

“The big key term is flexibility,” said Candy Allard, assistant vice president and human resource specialist with Badger Bank in Fort Atkinson. “We’ve been able to be flexible. Some employees have been able to work at home when needed. Others, we’ve been able to make their schedule a little more flexible. I’m trying to come up with things that may not have to do with salary, like maybe a day off for their birthday — other things to try to say, ‘Hey, this is a really good place to work.’”

Soda said higher pay generally isn’t the only answer to attracting employees, although for some it is. Like Allard, she suggested the culture of a bank also can help draw new employees.

“The best way to find and keep good employees is to maintain an engaged workforce in a culture they can articulate and be proud of,” Soda said. “It’s paying people for their value, providing good benefits and work-life balance, and recognizing their contributions and accomplishments.  It’s allowing them to grow, develop and contribute.”

She added: “To find good employees, you need to sell your organization. You can do this by playing a positive role in your communities and maintaining a culture that employees share with and brag about to others.”

Erick Gorecki, managing director of B$ Recruiters in Hartland, said community banks might have an advantage over large financial institutions if culture is what attracts and retains workers.

“If somebody doesn’t like their job, being highly paid is [only] going to keep them in their chair for so long,” Gorecki said. “The beauty of community banks is that they tend to be synonymous with really good culture, which is something that you probably can’t say about a lot of the bigger banks.”

He said many people who move to smaller banks from big ones “just gush about how refreshing of an experience it is.”

“The ability to focus on the customer without overburdening administrative tasks and bureaucracy is a big part of that, along with the ability to have fun at work,” he said.

While pay isn’t always the determining piece, Gorecki said it’s a “candidate-driven” market right now, meaning people have more opportunities for work and are paying attention to compensation.

“There’s probably a little extra temptation to understand what they might be worth to a competitor, which isn’t to say that is going to hurt retention, but it may,” Gorecki said. “There’s always sort of a curiosity factor for knowing what you’re worth on the market.”

Banks have lots of competitors for workers. Soda listed some.

“Any other type of financial institutions, schools, medical facilities, and manufacturing facilities — particularly for administrative, IT, HR, marketing, and accounting positions, which can be done from home in some form,” she said.

Allard said bigger retailers and restaurants sometimes can offer a better starting wage.

“We a lot of times now are competing with starting wages being higher at our fast-food restaurants, or we’re competing with Walmart, or one of our locations is next to the outlet mall, so we are competing with the $15 starting wages that they can offer because of their size,” she said.

However, unlike retailers and restaurants, banks generally can promise job candidates that there will be no night hours and no weekend work except perhaps Saturday mornings.

Gorecki said with the fluidity of the job market, banks might be reluctant to spend time on training the way they would if they were sure a new employee was going to stick around. But that would be a mistake, he said.

“It’s a tough thought for some banks — or any organization — to invest a lot of training in people and them having the unfortunate day when you see them leave the bank,” Gorecki said. “But that’s going to be a way better scenario than neglecting development of people and then having them stay with the bank.”

Soda said tough competition for employees was going on even before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

“Human resource professionals have been discussing this for some time now,” she said. “The Baby Boomer generation is retiring and Generation X and Generation Y (millennials) families tend to be smaller. They don’t have as many children, which is all starting to affect the labor pool.”

Soda said the pandemic appears to have reduced the number of qualified candidates available because many who worked from home for months wish to continue with that practice.

The outlook for hiring in 2022 doesn’t seem likely to change greatly from the situation today.

Gorecki said the end of the special pandemic unemployment payment may inspire more people to rejoin the labor market.

“I would suspect that dries up and that normalizes to where maybe a lot of these entry level openings are filled up by people who need to get back to work,” he said.

Soda said the competition for hiring next year probably won’t be much different than it is now.

“Even as the pandemic diminishes, organizations will continue to find ways to attract and retain good talent in a tight labor pool,” she said. “Perhaps finding ways to involve retirees and utilizing things like part-time positions, job-sharing, work from home, etc. will become the way of the future.”

Paul Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years. Have a story idea? Contact him at paul.gores57@gmail.com.