Neverending story: Labor questions are easing for community banks — but a good specialist is still hard to find

Believe it or not, even for 100-year-old institutions in the tried-and-true traditional banking sector, things can change fast.

A year ago, community banks were citing concerns about the competitiveness of hiring the talent required to keep their growing operations running smoothly.

Christopher Maher, CEO of OceanFirst Bank, indicated that trend has turned. Today, there’s a far more balanced labor market for local banks, he said.

“The most critical talent is always in high demand,” he said. “So, while I classify it as conditions easing some — and we’ve heard it from our customers as well — that doesn’t mean the best talent is easy to find.”

Bankers actively seeking new hires are having an easier time, but most agree that there are still some sought-after gaps in talent: Namely, certain hard-to-find (and expensive when you find it) banking specializations and in the prospective next-generation bankers just leaving college.

Maher and others list those in-demand specializations as skilled compliance folks, a perennial need for bankers, and roles falling on the ever-expanding technology side of the banking business.

Brydget Falk-Drigan. (Peapack-Gladstone Bank)

Brydget Falk-Drigan, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Peapack-Gladstone Bank, said it’s been seeing pre-pandemic levels of retention at the bank, just about a year removed from when the “Great Resignation” brought high turnover to nearly every institution in the sector.

When it comes to hiring, she echoes the sentiment that there are still pockets of need that are proving difficult to fill. She attributes some of that to competition from the tech sector and — from Drigan’s perspective, the biggest competitive threat for banking recruiters — the wealth management sector.

Good news on layoffs

With reports of institutions such as JP Morgan Chase reportedly cutting jobs by the hundreds, one might expect New Jersey banks to be quietly adding to the industry layoff totals.

Instead, Mike Affuso of the New Jersey Bankers Association said he’s not hearing much about workforce reductions in New Jersey’s banking sector.

“Right now, things are pretty steady, particularly among community banks in New Jersey,” he said. “It also seems as though the Investors-Citizens merger hasn’t resulted in any kind of major attrition of talent.”

Once one of the largest community banks chartered in the state, Investors Bancorp was acquired last year by Rhode Island-based Citizens Financial Group, the parent company of Citizens Bank. Two major regional banks coming together like that might have signaled the beginning of a migration of banking talent (either out of the industry or out of the state), as Affuso indicated can happen when any entities merge.

“There’s always some duplication of roles, particularly in the upper reaches of an organization,” he said. “But, from what I understand, most people were either retained or retained by another institution.”

The takeaway is this: The headlines haven’t soured local banks’ disposition.

“The market for job seekers isn’t what it was a year ago, but the numbers remain strong,” Affuso said. “We’re continuing to hear banks are looking for talent. It’s just at a more measured pace they’re looking for it.”

“That tends to be a field that, right now, is seen as more attractive to folks coming out of college,” she said. “Being a licensed wealth manager, working for the big firms in New York, has a lot of appeal for graduates. But that hasn’t stopped us so far from being able to hire and grow talent at Peapack.”

The work internally at banks is paying off. Peapack-Gladstone Bank supported the workplace flexibility embraced during the pandemic, with employees having the opportunity to work two days from home. That’s helping in the retention part of the labor equation, Drigan said.

Outside their own four walls, bankers are trying to do more, too. Peapack has a talent culture specialist who has been facilitating workshops to help draw in graduates from local colleges.

“We’re actively out in the community, working with several colleges — Montclair, Fairleigh Dickinson and Rutgers universities, to name a few,” Drigan said. “We’re going into classrooms there, teaching students about who we were and what a banking career looks like. I believe that has helped us quite a bit.”

To support the industry around them, bankers are also working as a collective on these outreach efforts.

Most of that work is organized by the New Jersey Bankers Association, which has just gotten a statewide industry internship program underway this year that will give nearly 1,000 individuals the opportunity to network and learn about the local sector from its leaders.

OceanFirst’s Maher said his bank is among the many NJBankers member banks participating in the trade association’s new programs.

“We all want to send the best message we can about the opportunities in banking,” Maher said. “The industry has struggled for a few years to attract young college graduates into opportunities in the banking industry. These internship programs are really going to help recruiting in that space.”

Mike Affuso. (New Jersey Bankers Association)

As for what message they want to send … Mike Affuso, CEO of NJBankers, said it starts with letting New Jersey college students know that a career in the state’s community banking institutions isn’t static.

“If you look at the large money centers, they offer the opportunity to pursue varied lines of banking,” he said. “Community banks are offering those diverse career paths, too.”

The sales pitch to young recruits might have historically been easier from the big bank perspective, given how visible they are.

“If you look at big buildings going up all over the state, you see that they involve large institutions,” Affuso said. “But smaller banks allow for smaller projects that people can see as well.”

Steven Klein. (Northfield Bank)

Steven Klein, CEO and president of Northfield Bank, said the fact that there are less layers of authority between traditional relationship banker roles and the leadership posts could be touted as a perk as well.

As for the type of young banker it’s looking for in those client-facing roles, Klein said the bank has had a lot of success in new hires that come from a retail background.

“They’re always prepared to put themselves in a customers’ shoes, and we can really build off of that,” Klein said. “But you can teach banking to anyone who has the right, hospitality-type mentality. … And it helps that organizations such as NJBankers hold programs that show a wide range of individuals what we’re actually doing as a bank on a day-to-day basis.”

Klein said he “feels very positive” about the direction of talent trends. And he expects the efforts of NJBankers to introduce the industry to the next generation will make a big difference in hiring for years to come.

But, he’s not losing sight of what comes after.

“I do think we, especially in community banking, have to continue striking the right balance for employees once they’re on board,” Klein said. “And, if we can continue to execute the right hybrid model and create engaged talent at our bank, we’re going to have very satisfied customers.”