Maya Gray, a single mother of two in Chicago, was at rock bottom in late 2012. She'd lost her six-figure job as a business process change manager in the Chicago office of a European multinational that was downsizing, and by Christmas of that year she'd fallen behind on the mortgage payments on her home.
But after nearly two years of joblessness, she's back on her feet with a new, good paying job, this time as a process change manager for Blue Cross, and her mortgage payments are on time again.
It's a common enough story as the country struggles to climb out of the Great Recession, but what makes hers unusual is that Gray owes her new job to a program run by the very bank that was getting ready to foreclose on her home.
Gray was fortunate in that just as her luck was running out, Fifth Third Bank, the large regional headquartered in Cincinnati, had decided to team up with the job-search firm NextJob, in a pilot program to coach troubled mortgage customers who had lost their jobs.
The goal: to help these customers find new employment with a steady paycheck so they could hang onto their homes.
"We were approached by NextJob back in October of 2011," says Larry Magnesen, the Fifth Third executive tasked with putting the program together.
NextJob, based in Bend, Ore., had proposed that it be contracted by the bank to provide one-on-one training, coaching and placement assistance to unemployed homeowners who were having trouble paying their mortgages.
"It seemed odd," Magnesen says. "Sort of like throwing good money after bad."
But the bank knew that close to half of foreclosures resulted from borrowers losing their jobs, and the average loss to the bank in a foreclosure was running at about $60,000. So management went for the idea, beginning in bank-like caution with a year-long pilot program.
The test, launched in February 2012, went spectacularly, with 40 percent of customers who had signed up for the program getting placed in jobs within six months. That worked out to a very respectable return on investment: the bank saved $3 for every $1 it spent on the re-employment program.
Encouraged by the results, Fifth Third decided in 2013 to open the program to all of the bank's jobless or under-employed mortgage customers.
"Now we find ourselves in the employment/re-employment space," says Magnesen.
Fifth Third even offers one piece of NextJob's training regime—an online, nine-module Job-Seekers' Tool Kit, which the bank has licensed from the company—free to all interested customers who access their accounts online.
NextJob CEO John Courtney says he made overtures to several other banks before he approached Fifth Third, but the earlier prospects rejected the idea of offering job coaching to their troubled mortgage customers.
Magnesen understands why other institutions may have been reticent.
"Banks have been very adept at minimizing their losses, so the idea of investing additional money to try and obtain a better outcome with borrowers was a little counterintuitive."
But given the tidal wave of foreclosures triggered by the housing bust, it's almost surprising that it took so long for any bank to try something like this.
Now, with Fifth Third's success, Courtney thinks the idea is likely to spread.
"We already have four more banks interested, including one that is larger than Fifth Third," he says. One of the four, M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y., has already announced a plan to offer NextJob counseling to jobless customers.
"We're following Fifth Third's approach of doing a pilot first," says Aimia Amadasu, M&T's vice president for risk management.
A big challenge with such programs, according to Courtney, is just convincing borrowers to sign up.
"Getting homeowners to believe free job search coaching offered by the bank isn't a scam is difficult," he says. "Many can't believe a bank would do this."
Fifth Third opted to introduce the service through a simple express letter.
Gray says she herself was skeptical when a FedEx delivery man brought an envelope to her door with a letter from Fifth Third offering her free help finding a new job, and admits she took a few days to respond. But once her coaching sessions began, she says, she was impressed. "They helped me learn how to market myself, how to control the pace of an interview and how to improve my resume," she says.
And when she finally landed a job offer, she had someone to celebrate with.
"The first thing I did, before I even called my mother, was to call my coach" from the NextJob program, she says. "We were both screaming on the phone."