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Bank CIOs Look to Recruit and Retain Top IT Talent

How are the state of the economy and current industry challenges affecting banks' ability to recruit and retain top IT talent? BS&T's Elite 8 2009 honorees share their opinions.

Even swelling unemployment rolls across the country may not help banks attract and retain top IT talent. As more than one (but not all) 2009 Elite 8 honoree suggests, banks are struggling with IT recruitment because the industry is being tarred with too broad a brush.

Whitney National Bank EVP and CIO Francisco DeArmas recalls a recent conversation he had with a college student who had a high level of IT talent: "Banking as an industry has such a negative connotation [that] we're being demonized to the point where, when I talked to a classmate of my daughter who is brilliant with IT security, he said he wouldn't go near a bank for a career."

Adds Thomas Kunz, SVP, director of payments and e-business with PNC Financial, "Given the state of the economy, I think a lot of students are anxious just to get a job. But there may be some pause [in joining the banking industry]. With all that went on in the investment banking area and the press attention, you can't help but think about it." He notes that the industry probably won't know the full impact of the financial crisis on recruiting "for another four or five years."

Unfortunately, banks can't wait that long to see how things turn out. The expectations of today's consumers -- in areas such as online functionality, self-service capabilities and real-time access to information -- are always growing. And for banks to meet, or at least come close to meeting, those expectations, CIOs and other technology leaders must find ways to attract and retain top IT talent right now.

To be certain, the recent economic environment and the industry's dubious public perception have made the task more difficult. Just how much more difficult depends on who you ask. Some banks have identified IT recruitment as a major pain point, while others report relative ease when it comes to finding talent. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that there still is a strong and viable case to be made to young IT workers about a career in financial services IT.

"The industry is going through tough times. If I'm coming out of school, there's a question of whether the financial vertical is where I want to start my career," Kunz acknowledges. "For what we do in my area [payments and e-business], it's so much fun and so dynamic that we're able to stand out and find good talent. But the core parts of IT, too, can differentiate on how technology-centric the financial institution is versus other industries. If you want a career in core technologies, then financial services is the way to go."

According to Ellen Carney, a Cambridge, Mass.-based senior analyst for Forrester Research, financial services IT is "still a terrific job for a lot of people to be thinking about at this point in time." "Let's face it," she continues, "financial services is the absolute largest industry, and banking is the biggest segment of it. It will continue to be a vibrant place for employment. The pendulum is going to swing back."

Aligning With Prospects' Values

Overwhelmingly, this year's Elite 8 honorees point to IT/business alignment as a key to both recruiting and retaining top tech talent. At its core, the idea is to show prospects and current IT workers that the work they do helps the company act on its larger corporate strategy and achieve its goals.

"We try to get people engaged with the business units," explains Donald Westermann, SVP, technology engineering and operations, Eastern Bank. "We want to give people a broader context of what they're doing -- being creative, staying away from big-bang implementations."

While stressing IT/business alignment can be an important part of recruiting and retaining workers, it's also just a part of the natural evolution of the financial services IT profession, according to Forrester's Carney. She says she hasn't seen many banks struggle to find IT talent over the past couple of years, but she has seen a change in the kind of IT talent that is valued. "I don't tend to see [recruiting struggles]. There are still strong job opportunities there," Carney relates. "I think the characteristics of what those jobs are going to be [have changed]. Once upon a time it was application development; now it's taking those applications and making them meaningful for the business. The skill mix is changing, but it's still in IT."

Technology professionals often like technology for the sake of technology, points out Comerica EVP and CIO John Beran. While that's not necessarily a bad thing -- it shows that an IT worker has an affinity for his or her work, according to Beran -- it can become an issue if new technology is given priority at the expense of business value. "Part of what we try to do is emphasize that if you want to invent and dabble in technology for the sake of technology, this is probably not the place for you," Beran says. "But if you want to believe that you can take technology and create business value, this is where you want to be."

That mantra, Beran adds, has become a part of Comerica's IT recruitment philosophy. "That's what we really try to do when we recruit folks -- it's about the practical applications of technology that create business value for our internal clients and the customers they serve," he explains. "That's a challenge -- to try to get young folks oriented toward the practical application of technology rather than just playing around with technology."

Gary Greenwald, chief innovation officer, Citi Global Transaction Services (GTS), says he takes GTS techs with him to client meetings so they can see that the technology they're working on is part of a solution to a problem. "There's the excitement factor of being part of something new," he explains, adding, "Making banking technology appealing [to prospective employees] is about optimizing technology. If the best and brightest are to come to banks, they need to see this focus. It's central to those who aspire to do higher-order innovation. There will be plenty of opportunities where banks will make money going forward."

Filling the Tech Talent Pipeline

To keep the IT talent pipeline full, North Shore Credit Union works closely with colleges and universities near the credit union's North Vancouver, B.C., headquarters to develop homegrown talent, according to CIO Fred Cook, who, borrowing a sports term, calls this "building through the draft." "By working with the tech schools, if you set up that strong relationship with them, it's actually a bonus because they're actually working with you to help you find the right sources of new talent coming out," he says.

Though some of his counterparts may view IT recruiting as a challenge, First National of Nebraska's chief operating officer, David Downing, tells BS&T that while Omaha -- where the bank is based -- is not necessarily as high-profile as Silicon Valley or Massachusetts' famed Route 128 corridor, there's something about the city that makes finding talented IT staff relatively easy. "In this market we just don't have a hard time getting good people," he says. "Omaha always shows up as [one of the] great places to live. ... The talent coming out of the universities [including Creighton University and the University of Nebraska] and graduate schools is very rich."

While Downing hasn't had trouble finding talent in the Omaha area, he does recognize that there is potential for local competition, with several Fortune 500 companies based in the region. Overall, though, he hasn't had much difficulty recruiting and retaining IT talent. "First National of Nebraska is viewed as an employer of choice in the Midwest," Downing reports. "It's not very hard for us to get and retain good people."

The real challenge, Downing submits, is keeping the most talented and valuable employees at the top of their game. "[A top priority] is keeping the really smart people challenged, because if you don't, they'll either break something so they can fix it, or they'll get you in trouble trying crazy stuff," Downing says. "Our primary challenge is keeping the good, quality people we have challenged all the time."

For Barbara Perino, SVP, operations and technology, The Washington Trust Company (Westerly, R.I.), the key to keeping a small (11 staffers) IT and operations workforce motivated is a combination of culture and striving to develop efficient processes. "We've accomplished a lot with very little increase in staff," she says. "We've just gotten better at what we do."

There are a number of reasons why Washington Trust has been recognized in various awards programs as an outstanding place to work, according to Perino. "It's the benefits we have, the way we treat our employees, the flexibility we have with scheduling," she says. "It's just a very nice place to work. So even if it does get stressful, I surround myself with great people, and we laugh -- because sometimes you just have to."

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