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News / Business

Bank branches are still hiring tellers and bankers, but the jobs look different now

By Lizzy McLellan Ravitch, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: March 12, 2023, 6:03am

Kim M. Sample started her banking career as a teller more than 34 years ago — before direct deposit and online banking, when Philadelphians were learning to “tap MAC” (a.k.a. to go the ATM).

“When I was a teller … if you went and said you could do banking in your phone, I think people would have looked at you like you were crazy,” said Sample, whose home branch is in Center City. “You would think of the Jetsons.”

Sample has served in several different roles throughout her decades with Wells Fargo, and now she’s a personal banker. She stayed connected with some customers from her early days, and now she’s also helping their adult children manage their accounts. People don’t come in to make deposits and withdrawals the way they used to, she said, but they still come to her for advice from their bankers, and they appreciate someone who knows and remembers them.

As the number of bank branches has declined, so too have the number of bank branch employees. The positions that remain look much different from what they did a few decades ago.

Still, local bank branches often have openings for entry-level branch positions, which they’re trying to fill in the same tight talent market that many industries are experiencing. Regional banking leaders said they are looking for people who can provide high-quality customer service — because why else would you go to a bank branch anymore? — and they’re still touting opportunities to move up within the company over time.

“Branches continue to play a huge role in how we help our customers,” said John Zimmerman, region director for greater Philadelphia at Wells Fargo. In staffing those locations, “we want people who just want to care and help individuals,” he said.

What’s changed, and what hasn’t

The face-to-face interactions at a bank branch now involve far fewer routine tasks. Deposits and transfers used to take days but are now instant. A credit card application used to take weeks, said Zimmerman, who started his career at Wells Fargo 23 years ago as a part-time teller. A customer would fill out forms from a pamphlet and send them through the mail.

“Today, they take their phone, scan a QR code, it populates on their phone, and within minutes, it’s done,” Zimmerman said.

The number of tellers needed to staff a branch is about half, regional bank leaders said. Bankers are fewer, too, because many of the customer-service tasks they used to do can now be handled online.

“Years ago, our stores were primarily transaction driven. People would come in and do their banking transactions,” said Rob Curley, regional president for Pennsylvania/New Jersey metro at TD Bank. He started as a part-time teller in 1989 with Commerce Bank.

“Customers who come into stores today are usually looking for some advice or specialized service,” Curley said.

That part isn’t a change, said Sample, the Wells Fargo personal banker. People have always come to their bank branch looking for advice, and they still need help with loans and life events that require changing their accounts. “If you have a certain banker, you’re going to that person,” she said.

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While visitors to a bank branch are often seeking human interaction, tellers and other branch employees need to be familiar with online banking tools, too. Shantelle Faison, program manager of the BankWork$ training program at Philadelphia OIC (begun as the Rev. Leon Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Center), said banks are increasingly seeking “tech savvy” hires.

Zimmerman and Curley said they are training employees on an ongoing basis, so they can help customers navigate online banking features and understand the banking products customers may ask about. “We make sure employees stay relevant,” Zimmerman said.

A chance to move up

Bank branches have been steadily dwindling in number as improved technology allows for more transactions to happen online. Mergers and acquisitions of banks have contributed to the decline in branches, and the pandemic accelerated the trend. Last year, the number of bank branches in the Philadelphia region dipped below 1,500, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Aside from the New York City area, the Philadelphia region has more bank tellers employed than any other metropolitan area on the East Coast, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their average wage in the Philadelphia region is $17.08 hourly, or $35,520 annually, as of 2021.

Faison said applicants to OIC’s BankWork$ program, which is tuition-free for those who get in, are usually expected to have some cashier experience. “They just want a stable career, with benefits and a good salary,” she said. With an average hourly wage of $12.53 for cashiers in the Philadelphia region, becoming a bank teller can mean a significant improvement in pay.

Faison worked at banks for 16 years herself, having started as a part-time teller, and ended up at OIC leading BankWork$ five years ago because she enjoyed the mentorship aspect of her prior jobs. She has seen some graduates go straight into manager roles because they had leadership experience from prior positions — one was a shift leader at Dunkin’ and another had been a manager at Walmart.

“Our students enter our program with long-term goals in mind,” said Andrea Mack, director of workforce development programs at Philadelphia OIC.

Ryma Allag, 34, is preparing for a career in banking at OIC. During a recent workforce development event at the Wardrobe in Northern Liberties, she and several classmates expressed optimism about their job prospects.

“It’s easy to find jobs at this time. It’s not like before the pandemic,” Allag said. So many people are hiring, she said, and it seems that far fewer people are willing to take a job that requires them to leave their home.

Bank teller employment was expected to decline by 12% from 2021 to 2031, but financial occupations on the whole are expected to grow 7% during that time period.

Being a teller creates a foundation for a career in banking, Zimmerman said, and it can open up opportunities elsewhere in the company. Wells Fargo teller pay starts at $20 an hour in Philadelphia, and there are more than two dozen teller positions open in the region, among roughly 100 retail bank positions open nearby.

Curley, of TD Bank, said his branches are frequently hiring, especially for openings created by promotions. The Toronto-based company has a U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hill, so people who start in Philadelphia and New Jersey branches often end up moving into more senior positions. TD Bank’s minimum wage is $15 an hour, he said.

“I’m a perfect example of someone who started as a part-time teller … now I’m a regional president,” Curley said. “I’m one of hundreds of examples.”

Zimmerman, of Wells Fargo, said he has noticed that more employees in recent years are eager to get promoted quickly. Hiring and keeping people for the long term has been a challenge, he acknowledged, but he thinks that’s more about the workforce as a whole than banking specifically.

“The amount of people that apply today versus previous years has dwindled down,” Zimmerman said. “We continue to monitor that (and discuss) what we need to do to be out there recruiting and how to sustain the ones we have.”

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